Sunday comment round-up -- 16 November 2008

A good week for Gordon Brown but why is the commentariat still unconvinced?

With a colossus-like Gordon Brown still striding around the globe, tributes being paid by world leaders and nobel prize winners alike, it would only seem right that the Sunday political commentators hail the great unelected one.

But for some reason it isn't working out like that. The scale of the the Brown bounce depends on whether you believe the Independent on Sunday's ComeRes poll, which has the Tories 11 points in the lead and heading for victory or the Sunday Times YouGov poll which has them at just five points ahead. But there is, on the face of it, every reason to marvel at the Prime Minister's astonishing comeback.

John Rentoul does his reasonable best. As he points out, governments can win elections in downturns and polls can be wrong, as the election of 1992 showed. But his endorsement is not exactly ringing:

Already the scales are more evenly balanced than they have been for most of the past year.

For the second time in three weeks, Rentoul's colleague, Alan Watkins, is deeply critical of Brown. What on earth can the Prime Minister have done to this elder statesman of British journalism? Surely even the most thuggish of the Brownites wouldn't have been daft enough to rough up this old gent of the liberal intelligentsia? Two weeks ago Watkins explained why Brown didn't deserve to win the next election, this week he predicts victory for Cameron, despite his shadow chancellor's difficulties. Now he says:

The last three Conservative Prime Ministers who attained office for the first time around were all surrounded by doubts. Edward Heath was regarded as outgunned; Margaret Thatcher, an inexperienced woman; John Major sure to lose because of the recession.

Iain Martin provides a fascinating analysis of why neither Labour nor the Tories are ready for an early election. In passing he notes Brown's impeccable Democratic Party contacts book, but suggests the veteran PM has more to learn from the novice President-elect than the other way round.

The most surprising dissident is Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer, the chronicler of New Labour. His analysis is pretty balanced, recognising the breathtaking nerve of Gordon Brown in ripping up the rule-book of prudence. But he is not prepared to condemn George Osborne for "talking down" the pound when it was already in a state of freefall. For Rawnsley, Osborne is playing a long-term strategy, waiting for the Prime Minister to tumble from the tightrope he has strung for himself over the chasm of the economic collapse.

Martin Ivens, the on-form political commentator of the moment, notes the chilling inhumanity of the Brown's performance at PMQs on Wednesday - failing to show any genuine empathy over the death of Baby P and wrongly criticising David Cameron for scoring political points (which he wasn't). How does this socially awkward individual who finds it so difficult to give a straight answer to a straight question manage to command such respect on the world stage? I do wonder myself sometimes. Maybe he has really good interpreters.

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.