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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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.