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29 July 2008

’A uniquely horrendous situation’

Veteran Tory politician John Gummer argues the situation's even worse for Gordon Brown than it was i

By John Gummer

Gordon Brown is on holiday in my constituency beset by commentators’ suggestions that he uses the time to ponder whether he ought to resign. The very idea shows that none of them have gone on a bucket and spade holiday with two young children! Nor indeed do they realise that this is a part of the country threatened with flooding from river and sea. There will therefore be a large number of my constituents who want to beard the prime minister on the government’s failure to keep up the defences.

I suspect that even the famously workaholic Brown would find more time to think in Number Ten than on the beach at Southwold.

In any case, any such musings would be bound to spoil the family’s vacation and they need time off from what is a quite uniquely horrendous situation.

I fought my first election more than forty years ago and I can’t remember anything comparable. Even as a cabinet minister living through the dying days of John Major’s Government – attacked on every side and beset by swivel-eyed revanchists – it wasn’t like this.

Although people had come to hate the Tories, they didn’t hate Major. He was still seen as a decent chap. It didn’t save him but he escaped the venom for the prime minister you find on the doorsteps to-day.

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It’s not just that people see Gordon Brown as strange and alien – although they do – it’s that they really dislike him personally. There’s a sharpness in the attack that even I, a political opponent, find disconcertingly unfair.

Back in 1997, the hatred was palpable, but it was not all-embracing. People grudgingly admitted that Ken Clarke was making a decent fist of the Treasury. Some even gave good marks to the Department of the Environment!

Today, it’s hard to find anyone who has a kind word for any Minister at all. Again, the opposition is so universal that it brushes aside the reasonably competent performance of Milliband at the Foreign Office, Jack Straw at Justice, or Hilary Benn at DEFRA.

Outside the Westminster village, I’ve yet to hear a good word for Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, or Ed Balls. There’s a kind of contempt that is seriously corroding and certainly several shades worse than I can remember from twelve years ago.

The contrast that must be the most concerning for Gordon Brown is that John Major was looking at a financial situation that was seriously on the up. So much so, that Michael Heseltine could never really believe that a government, presiding over so strong an economy, could actually lose.

Indeed, despite the polls, the by-election results, the local elections, and the evidence from our constituencies, we never quite gave up hope. And that’s where the real difference lies. There’s a kind of resignation that infuses the whole of this government in a way that I’ve not experienced before.

John Gummer (right) was a cabinet minister under Thatcher and Major

It shows itself in the fact that no-one can make a decision on the smallest matter without it going round and round the machine, backwards and forwards from Number Ten, subject to second and third guessing at every stage. Then, when finally something is decided, it is hung on to with a tenacity reminiscent of a drowning man clinging to a spar.

Consensus is thus avoided and confrontation positively insisted upon. Ministers seem purposely to spurn opportunities for reasonable agreement in favour of wounding fights over unnecessary details.

So the situation is genuinely bad for Gordon but, even so, he should not accept that he is totally lost.

Instead of flailing around as if the answer were action on every front, he should prolong his holiday, concentrate on the economy, ditch the unnecessary, and present a simple front of a government single-mindedly intent on enabling Britain to get out of the recession quicker than the rest of the world.

It may not save him electorally but it could restore his reputation.

That, in itself, would be good for politics and for Britain. The present depth of loathing is doing no-one any good.

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