Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bad year for Broon.

“Macavity’s a mystery cat. He’s called the Hidden Paw - for he’s the master criminal who can defy the law”. Well, not quite. The Hidden Paw, or Clunking Fist as we know him, hasn’t quite given the boys in blue the slip this Christmas. The Electoral Commission has yet to rule on Labour’s various fund-raising scandals north and south of the border, and a police inquiry seems inevitable. But we can be sure that when PC Plod comes to call, Macavity will not be there.

The Prime Minister will be in Lisbon not signing a treaty, or disappearing to Basra on a flying fact finding visit, or following his moral compass to some obscure neo-conservative get-together with Rupert Murdoch and Gertrude Himmelfarb.Indeed, one suspects that if and when Gordon Brown finally calls an election, we’ll find him absent on polling day if things are look bad. Perhaps taking up the option of a postal vote from Bruges.

There’s no doubt that Brown’s reluctance to face the music has had a lot to do with his difficulties in this extraordinary year. The Prime Minister’s evasiveness and infirmness of purpose turned out to be the biggest surprise. It has even become a national issue, now that even the Bank of England is saying that he’s paralysed by indecision.

It certainly has a tragic quality. Here is a man who waited in the shadows for over a decade, plotting and hoping. Then he takes over in a wave of popular relief at the departure of King Tone, only to fall flat on his face within weeks. Brown is even in danger of losing Scotland, if the opinion polls are any guide, and his own ally, Wendy Alexander, will likely be sacrificed in the New Year.

It is quite extraordinary, even in our set-em-up-and-knock-’em-down political culture for the fortunes of a politician to fall so far so fast. In late September, on the eve of the Conservative Conference, Labour had a double digit lead over the Tories in UK opinion polls, and David Cameron’s critics were preparing for a funeral. Now, the Tories have a double digit lead over Labour, and David Cameron is already choosing his first Cabinet. What happened?

Well, first of all, Brown bottled the election. After being flattered into contemplating an early poll by his coterie of young admirers, the Prime Minister called a halt to the juggernaut after late polling returns suggested he might lose key marginal seats. It’s impossible to say whether this would have lost him the election. The late surge had a lot to do with David Cameron’s promise to abolish inheritance tax below £1m - a shameless tax bribe to middle England. Had there been an election campaign, Brown might well have been able to neutralise the policy by consolidating the existing reliefs which allow couples to shelter up to £600,000. But we’ll never know. ‘Who dares wins’ isn’t Gordon, and the election was cancelled.

Unfortunately, ‘events’ were not. A remarkable change took place in public attitudes after the election funk. The press may have turned against him and his youthful ministers, like Douglas Alexander, in large part because the hacks had been deprived of a story. But almost immediately you started hearing people from all backgrounds suddenly attacking Brown personally - for his flickering smile, his contrived humility. There seems to be something about Brown that a lot of people just don’t like. The self-righteous ‘moral compass’ sits uneasily with a politician as calculating as the PM, who appeared to use a visit to the troops in Basra to upstage David Cameron’s conference speech.

A politician who has a tendency to let other people take the knocks. Like the hapless chancellor, Alistair Darling, who found himself landed with the first run on a British bank in 140 years when Northern Rock, Britain’s fifth largest bank, collapsed under the weight of its own debt. Macavity was nowhere to be seen as the queues ran round the bloc and the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority scrapped. It wasn’t until a deal was struck to guarantee deposits in Northern Rock that Brown finally surfaced to congratulate himself for the soundness of the banking sector.

Northern Rock was, however, a turning point. As people began to reflect upon the state of our debt-ridden society, with £1.4 trillion in personal loans, erected on the shifting sands of an unsustainable house price boom, suddenly the ten years of economic success didn’t seem quite so rosy. With the sub-prime meltdown shredding the profits of banks, people started to worry about the security of their homes and jobs for the first time since the Tory recession and the ERM debacle in 1992.

Of course, this wasn’t so bad as Black Wednesday - at least on the surface. Interest rates didn’t rise to 15%; they actually fell, and are expected to fall again in the New Year. But no one is under any illusions about the seriousness of the problem. Everyone realises now that the housing bubble, inflated by Brown, has to burst eventually and the financial services sector, on which he bet the future, has turned out to be made of straw.

After Northern Rock, everything started to go wrong. We had the lost revenue computer discs, immigration figures that didn’t add up, the illegal donations row and the rather sad Macavity act over the signing in Lisbon of the EU treaty. But even with all these manifest difficulties, it is still hard to understand quite things went quite so disastrously wrong fro Brown.

My own view is that the problem was essentially political. Brown came into office with expectations of change, radical change. His conference speech announced it thirteen times. But for all the promises, Brown changed very little from the previous regime. He got out of Iraq, certainly - though Afghanistan has now taken its place. But apart from a few rhetorical changes, and a promise to reform the constitution which he hasn’t delivered, Brown has continued with the policies of his predecessor. Persevering with ID cards, detention without trial, nuclear power and Trident.

For all his child-friendly pronouncements, Brown has not acted decisively on child poverty or Britain’s dismal social mobility as noted by the OECD recently. Brown’s pronouncements on immigration have shocked many on the Left, who could hardly believe their ears when he called for “British jobs for British workers”. Brown’s economic policy seems almost entirely driven by the City and the big finance houses. Few expected Brown to be socialist, but most expected something different.

It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Brown is really Blair without the charisma. The former PM turned out to be the biggest Macavity of all in 2007, when he disappeared without trace without trace after he stepped down in June. But perhaps the master of disguise had just merely changed his face.

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