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10 January 2008

Reasons to be cheerful (Part two)

There may be more to Gordon Brown's New Year relaunch than meets the eye. Martin Bright, NS politica

By Martin Bright

As we enter the new political season, it’s out with the old (“the vision thing”), in with the new (“long-term decisions”). It is also out with the naively optimistic “government of all the talents” and in with the familiar tribal “dividing lines” that Westminster finds so reassuring. When in doubt, it’s best to abandon the abstract for the realistic, the idealistic for the pragmatic.

Through the crises of the past three months it has been difficult for Gordon Brown to establish an overarching philosophy and even more difficult to project it to the wider public. If, as the Prime Minister tells us in characteristically miserabilist fashion, we can look forward to a grim year, then Brown and his aides are probably right to judge that the electorate is less interested in hearing about his vision for Britain than in knowing that their savings and mortgages are safe from an impending global economic crash. At the end of 2007 it was noted that Brown’s friends on the left were turning against him. So, in the spirit of the new year, here is the latest in our occasional series Reasons for Gordon Brown to Be Cheerful (my last piece under the same title appeared in July 2006). It has to be said that, this time, there are not many reasons in number, but they are substantial and they suggest that all is not lost.

The first of these is the surprisingly impressive performance of Blairite ministers. Under the previous PM, it was invariably the Blairites who messed up. All the high-profile resignations were Blairites: Stephen Byers, David Blunkett (twice), Peter Mandelson (twice), Charles Clarke. Generally speaking, the Brownites did not. Alistair Darling was seen as a particularly safe pair of hands. With Brown’s premiership, this trend has been reversed. Hazel Blears, an arch-Blairite, has proved a competent and popular Communities Secretary, whose frank admission of the gravity of the David Abrahams affair made a refreshing change from the usual ministerial weasel words. Alan Johnson has avoided severe blame for the never-ending problems of the NHS. He has also avoided charges of disloyalty, even though he suggested the government could do better.

Endearing features

John Hutton, like Johnson once touted as a possible Blairite leadership challenger, has made a point of keeping his head down. As one senior Labour figure said: “Hutton has taken the job of Business and Enterprise Secretary literally. He is the minister who loves business.” The youngest of the group, James Purnell, has in effect sold himself as the new Chris Smith at Culture, Media and Sport. By attending countless opening nights and emphasising his artistic pedigree as a member of the National Youth Theatre, he has brilliantly distracted attention from the swingeing cuts that are set to close some of the UK’s most celebrated small theatres. The only possible exception here is Jacqui Smith, Brown’s boldest appointment, who has been hamstrung by the institutional failures of the Home Office. Which neatly brings us to the second reason to be cheerful: Brown’s loyalty to his ministers.

Whereas Blair was an inveterate sacker, so far Brown has stuck by the people he has appointed. He has generally allowed them to get on with their jobs despite his reputation for control freakery. With a less stubborn boss, Smith could have gone after the scandal over illegal immigrants working in the security industry. Northern Rock and the missing data disks could have done for Darling, and his survival is not entirely due to his role as a fall guy for the failings of his predecessor. Many thought Brown was less than supportive of Harriet Harman over the Abrahams fiasco, but both she and Peter Hain, who just a few days ago had to apologise for failing to register some of the donations to his deputy leadership campaign, are still in post.

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Meanwhile, Brown’s long-standing loyalty to the triumvirate of “Young Turks” Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander remains undiminished in spite of their apparent enthusiasm for a snap election. Brown’s loyalty is one of his more impressive characteristics. By contrast, Blair’s preparedness to dispense with close political friends was one of his least appealing qualities, as Peter Mandelson found out. Again, there is an exception. The consistent undermining of the work of David Miliband at the Foreign Office has been a bizarre aberration, which suggests that Brown or those around him still perceive the young pretender as a possible alternative focus of power.

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The third reason for Brownite hope is that the Tories are not ready for power – and the public knows it. Despite the scale of the crisis of confidence in (and within) the Labour government at the end of 2007, the Tories enter 2008 only about five points ahead in the polls. They should be doing much better than this, and will need to improve if they are to win the next election. There remains a view that beyond David Cameron’s front bench, talent is thin. George Osborne, David Davis and William Hague have proved consistent performers and new faces such as Michael Gove and Chris Grayling have dug up good dirt. But filling junior ministerial posts in a Tory government after a 2009/2010 victory would be a nightmare task.

A more confident Brown could push forward talented younger ministers such as Liam Byrne, Caroline Flint, Pat McFadden and David Lammy to demonstrate that Labour is the party of mainstream Britain, while the Conservatives still embody privilege. The Muslim MPs Shahid Malik, Sadiq Khan and Khalid Mahmood should also be pushed further into the limelight, not just because they have an elected mandate to represent British Muslims, but because they have a mandate to represent non-Muslims, too.

When the Tories started out on the slow road to recovery after the 2005 defeat, they began working on a two-election strategy for returning to government. They still know it will be hard to win an outright mandate at the next election, and Brown should use 2008 to dig away at this weak point.

Soul of liberalism

The new season gives time for reflection. Just at the moment when Brown seems to have abandoned the idea of outlining a political vision, a significant realignment may actually be occurring under his feet. Behind Cameron’s mischievous offer to build a progressive consensus with the Liberal Democrats lies an essential truth. It is easy to forget the Lib Dems, but the election of Nick Clegg has given the party a true Liberal leader for the first time in a decade. Charles Kennedy was a Social Democrat, Menzies Campbell had distinct left-wing tendencies, and even Vincent Cable suggested nationalising a bank.

The truth is that in 2008, Britain has a choice of three liberal leaders. In a book I never tire of praising, Best for Britain? The Politics and Legacy of Gordon Brown, Simon Lee put it brilliantly: “In the run-up to the next general election, the key ideological contest between Gordon Brown and David Cameron . . . will be over who is the truest advocate of lib eralism in 21st-century British politics.” This is where the final reason to be cheerful lies for the government. Those of us to the left of Brown will continue to be disappointed in him, but the battle for the soul of liberalism is one that he can, and should, win.