The idea that the current government is embroiled in an irreversible endgame began to be heard several months ago. With astonishing speed, this has now become a given of current political discourse. The only storylines left for the hapless prime minister, it seems, are resignation, regicide or electoral meltdown.
But are endgames as inescapable and unwinnable as is widely assumed? Or are there strategic responses that have allowed seemingly doomed administrations to regain momentum and turn things round against all expectations?
Those with long memories and more detached minds will recall that this current bout of government-baiting is not without precedent. A common feature of the endgames associated with the final years of the administrations led by James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and John Major, was that in each case a complex tangle of pressures and failings got compressed into one overarching theme in the popular mind.
This motif became both lightening rod and symbol for all that was deemed wrong with leader and government. For Callaghan it was industrial discontent; for Blair, Iraq; Thatcher, the Poll Tax; and Major, Europe. In today’s context, we have to wonder whether the economic downturn has already forged the prism through which Brown and his government are widely viewed. Many believe that Brown’s fate has already been sealed with portions of the electorate.
And yet the historical record also contains some intriguing counter-examples and unforeseen political outcomes. And these ought to provide food for thought for those keen to write the obituary of this government.
The notices served on Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, in 1982-83, and the difficult prospects facing John Major’s before the election of 1992, did not result, as many expected, in electoral defeat. And in Major’s case this was despite a backdrop of economic recession.
Both examples illustrate the importance of unforeseen events, and the lingering difficulty which Labour in opposition had in establishing a relationship with a wary electorate. More directly relevant to Brown’s plight are the remarkable turnarounds engineered by the great electioneer Gerhard Schröder in the German elections of 2002 and 2005.
A mixture of changing circumstances and strategic acumen generated unexpected political momentum and a stumbling response from his opponents. These gave his party a surprise narrow victory in the first of these contests and though it did not win outright in the latter, it did force the Christian Democrats into coalition with the SPD.
The Brown government’s most recent efforts to ‘re-launch’ itself, and its over-hyped economic recovery plan, do suggest recognition of the need to break out of the vicious and self-fulfilling spiral of judgement associated with the politics of the endgame.
But the derision with which these proposals were received is a clear sign that modest measures and conventional political calculations are unlikely at present to shift the force-field of political life.
Policies emerging from cute tactical triangulations – balancing off tabloid editors and core voters - have not given people enough with which to identify. Nor have they communicated a clear sense to the public about whose side it is that the prime minister is on.
What then are the ingredients of the kind of approach that might give the government and its supporters a degree of hope, and interrupt the flow of popularity and initiative away from government to the Conservatives?
Above all, this needs to be a positively defined strategy, expressed in language that gives meaning to disparate policies and ties together important initiatives; not a calculated gimmick or one-off attempt to outsmart the Tories.
The government desperately needs greater definition, a well communicated purpose and a sense of direction. These will most likely come from a policy frame that is plausibly tied to Brown’s own political identity and keenest passions.
A push for greater social justice combined with a commitment to remaking the case for active government in difficult times, could provide a powerful way of framing some valuable and eye-catching measures across different departments, for instance legislating to abolish child and pensioner poverty, a major extension of the public provision of childcare and a further initiative to bring UK class sizes into line with the OECD’s average.
These would provide a more vigorous test of the substance of the Tories’ proclaimed new progressivism.
They could also be underpinned by a straightforward account of the importance and role of the state in terms that express a sharper difference between the politics of progressives and the seductively simplistic idea of the ‘post-bureaucratic state’ favoured by David Cameron.
For sure, economic policy is going to remain the major arena of political life in the next year and beyond. But the government’s ever more defensive tapering of its own agenda in response to the worsening crisis only seems to confirm its declining reputation with the public.
Opening up other related ‘fronts’ in the political struggle over the management of the economy is a vital means of generating the kind of forward momentum and sense of purpose which this government so patently lacks. As well as fairness and social justice, there is a strong case too for turning rhetoric about devolving real decisions and powers to elected representatives outside Westminster into some bold legislative realities.
Giving some real powers to local authorities and communities in areas such as taxation, health and policing, carries undoubted risks. But these are surely now outweighed by the government’s growing reputation as an overly centralising and distantly bureaucratic force.