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24 January 2008

Hain did the right thing

The transition from Blair to Brown feels increasingly like the transition from Thatcher to Major arg

By Danny Alexander

Six months and twenty eight days after Gordon Brown’s arrival at Number 10, and he has suffered his first cabinet casualty.

Peter Hain is a decent, hard-working man and, on a personal level, I am sorry that he has resigned under such dismal circumstances.

But the reality is that once the Electoral Commission referred Peter’s alleged campaign finance misdemeanours to the Metropolitan Police, there really was no alternative for him.

Peter now wants to clear his name, and I wish him well. But if he is to succeed in that task, he will have to provide substantial answers to the questions which have clearly vexed the Electoral Commission.

Whether or not this is the end of Peter’s ministerial career is unclear, but this affair has certainly damaged the reputation of the government.

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The truth is that the transition from Blair to Brown feels increasingly like the transition from Thatcher to Major. We are witnessing government incompetence, economic turmoil and the unedifying sight of ministers clinging on to office by their finger tips.

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John Major had a masochistic habit of backing colleagues in dire straits only to share in the personal embarrassment when the inevitable happened.

Brown should be wary of going down that path. To be fair, describing Peter’s actions as “an incompetence” was a clear indicator that the PM was distancing himself from his troubled colleague.

That comment left Hain’s political credibility in tatters, despite the protestations of prime ministerial confidence that followed. After that there was a palpable sense that it was a matter of when, not if, Mr Hain would quit.

Before his own resignation, Norman Lamont acted as Major’s ‘lightening conductor’ – taking unexpected hits to shield his boss. Certainly things got no easier for Major once Lamont had gone. The danger for the current government is that Peter may have been serving the same function.

For Brown the bigger picture problem is that, like Major, his problems seem to bleed into one another. The economic downturn, the loss of thirty three million people’s personal data and the Northern Rock crisis are separate events, but they add up to an overall impression. The words incompetence and dithering are now closely associated with Gordon Brown – just as they were with John Major.

If I were the prime minister I would be concerned by the way in which events seem to have moved beyond the government’s control. Just a few months after taking his coronation Gordon Brown’s government has already been cast in that light. Like Major’s Tories, Brown’s Labour is beginning to look old and tired. Peter Hain’s has been the first resignation under the Labour’s new Prime Minister: he is unlikely be the last.