Politics - John Kampfner knows when Brown will be back

I am told that Gordon Brown was not consulted about Labour's misguided posters, or about the six ele

The sneaking feeling is in fashion for the first time in a decade. People are beginning to imagine, just for a brief moment, that nice Mr Howard waving to the choreographed crowds as he and Sandra walk into Downing Street on 6 May. Let's not get carried away. This is a classic case of the political classes working in harmony. The Conservatives are happy to be taken seriously again. Labour is keen for the lapsed supporter to appreciate the impending danger. And political journalists are desperate for the coming election to be more exciting than the previous one.

So just how badly is the Labour campaign going? Badly in one respect. From the first Tory immigration "crackdown" to Margaret Dixon's shoulder and several skirmishes between, ministers have been caught on the hop. Michael Howard's guerrilla tactics have been effective in raising his party's profile and playing to the concerns of disgruntled voters. They do not add up to a coherent strategy, but they are helping foster a more unpredictable and sour mood. Opinion polls and private party surveys show that Labour's vote remains volatile but that the Tories are not gaining particular ground, certainly not yet. A comfortable Labour majority, say something between 50 and 100 seats, is still the favoured bet, but the statistics are predicated on a uniform swing and turnout. The only safe prediction is that there will be many individual surprising results.

Labour's message has not been inspiring. The parliamentary fracas over control orders for terrorist suspects has demonstrated the extent to which Blair seems determined to catch out the opposition rather than inspire voters. It has been an unedifying spectacle. That aside, the campaign has not been as relentlessly dispiriting as is usually portrayed. Blair and a select band, usually Blair, have tried to raise issues such as the minimum wage or the reduction of hospital waiting times. Coverage of these issues in the national media, particularly the written press, has been non-existent or grudging. Labour strategists hope that by means of regional papers and local television interviews, these points are getting through "under the radar". They point out that when the campaign is formally announced after Easter, broadcasters will be under an obligation to provide more unfiltered airtime. They also talk of the "anaesthetising effect" of success. In a recent survey only 6 per cent of respondents counted the economy as important . . . Which is where Gordon Brown, inevitably, comes in.

The word from on high is that as soon as the 16 March Budget is over, Brown will be thrust centre-stage. "Everybody wants Gordon to be central to the campaign," says one of Blair's people. I am told that the very same Prime Minister who snubbed Brown by appointing Alan Milburn to be Labour campaign chief last September is now telling his Chancellor in private that he did no such thing and that he always envisaged him to be "running the campaign". I am not sure how this tallies with the failure to consult Brown, nominally a member of Labour's strategy committee, about the party's misguided poster campaign, or about the six pledges. Nor, I am told, has the Chancellor seen a single draft of the manifesto; although some involved in drawing it up deny this.

If Brown is brought back, it will have to be done on his terms. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to find a job description that could accommodate both him and Milburn. The problem is deeper than that, however. Brown disputes the central tenet of the campaign so far. He is adamant that Labour should be fighting far more on its core issues of the economy and investment in public services. It should stick to its ground even if the Tories are making day-to-day noise elsewhere. Given that the biggest danger is the Labour-inclined voter staying at home rather than switching to the Conservatives, there is, Brown argues, no merit in trying to match Tory announcements. Nor is there much advantage in making this a plebiscite on Blair's leadership. Several cabinet members have been lobbying for a more collegiate effort, complaining that Blair and Milburn are "operating in a void".

The sniping about "sulking" Brown has abated, as has the talk of him being shunted to the Foreign Office. But the cessation of hostilities is temporary. Nothing has been resolved for the succession. Blair has yet to produce a single piece of evidence to deny that he promised Brown he would stand down last year. As the votes are counted on the night of 5 May, Blair will look at the numbers before deciding his next step. The hesitancy of the early campaigning has forced those who considered Brown expendable to reconsider. Blair needs him again, and Brown knows he does. That alters the dynamic for the important weeks that precede the election and the even more important weeks that will follow it.


Next Article