If Gordon Brown thinks he’s having a bad time, I have just returned from a country where the prime minister is in real trouble. Things really couldn’t be worse for Israel’s premier, Ehud Olmert, who has been shown to have taken large, undisclosed sums of cash for his political campaigns from an American philanthropist.
Olmert claims the donations are entirely above board and has said he will stand down if he is indicted. The scandal is just the latest in a series of investigations into the premier’s financial dealings. His weakened position threatens to derail the peace process under way between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which the Bush administration had hoped to broker by the end of the year.
Olmert has already been severely criticised for his handling of Israel’s 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon. Following a raid by Hezbollah guerrillas into Israel in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two captured, he ordered bombing raids and a ground invasion. In the five-week war that followed, more than 160 Israelis were killed and Hezbollah was left undefeated. In an official report published in January, Olmert’s government was accused of “grave failings”.
On returning to Britain, thinking about Olmert, I could not help wondering why Gordon Brown is in quite so much dif ficulty. Not so much as a whiff of financial impropriety has ever surrounded the present Prime Minister, even when the stench of scandal has been swirling around him. Despite Lord Levy’s assertions that it was inconceivable that Brown didn’t know about the undisclosed loans set up before the 2005 election, the cheery peer has no proof. The more recent revelations about questionable funding of Labour’s deputy leadership campaigns also left Brown unscathed. Nor is the Prime Minister held responsible for the mistakes of the war in Iraq. Although he voted for intervention, he has always allowed others to associate the conflict with his predecessor. Those around him refer to it as “Tony’s war”.
Indeed, in Israel, the endless tales of sleaze and questions over the handling of a war were somewhat reminiscent of the last days of the Blair government. The irony was not lost on the Israelis I spoke to, that Tony Blair was finally brought down by his reaction to the 2006 Lebanon War, while the Israeli premier who ordered the invasion remains in place. (It was Blair’s failure to condemn the invasion that sparked the back-bench “coup” that forced him to name a date for his departure). Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour Party precisely because he was not directly associated with the sleaze that was perceived to have engulfed the party and had also somehow managed to dissociate himself from the Iraq War.
So why is the British electorate not more appreciative of Gordon Brown? He has none of the negative associations of an Olmert or a Blair, and yet he is the most unpopular Labour leader since polling began. Some may question whether things can be quite as bad as the latest YouGov poll putting Labour at 23 per cent and the Conservatives on 49 per cent suggests. But the internet polling company proved uncannily accurate in its prediction of the result of the 1 May London mayoral election. Labour MPs are taking the figures very seriously. More worrying still was the ICM poll on the 22 May Crewe and Nantwich by-election, published in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday, which suggested that Labour voters believe David Cam eron would make a better prime minister than Brown.
When the charge sheet against the Prime Minister is read out, it still does not explain these levels of unpopularity. Brown stands accused of the following, in chronological order: hesitating over calling an election after the 2007 party conference season, stealing the Conservatives’ ideas on inheritance tax shortly afterwards, not reacting decisively enough to the Northern Rock crisis and failing to clock the full effects of the abolition of the 10 per cent income tax on certain lower-earning workers. Add to this Brown’s suicidal stubbornness over extending the detention without charge of terrorist suspects to 42 days and it makes for quite a list.
These are all serious issues that add up to a pattern of poor judgement which should rightly give rise to concern. But the Israeli public would find it mystifying that the British had turned so decisively against their Prime Minister for such minor misdemeanours.
The real difference, of course, is the economy. Despite Olmert’s domestic political difficulties, the worsening situation in Gaza and the mood of increasing pessimism over the peace talks, the Israeli economy is booming. The success of the country’s hi-tech industries, coupled with the extra security brought by the wall separating Israel from the West Bank, has led to an unprecedented period of prosperity. In Britain, as the housing minister Caroline Flint’s briefing notes revealed, we are heading for a crash in the housing market that could bring more economic gloom. For a Prime Minister who built his reputation on economic competence, this is a disaster.
However, we have been here before. There has been much speculation about whether Gordon Brown will turn into a latter-day James Callaghan, destined to lead the party and become prime minister but never win an election. Yet the parallels are not entirely accurate, not least because Callaghan was never so unpopular and was widely expected to win the 1979 election until the Winter of Discontent made it impossible.
A more interesting historical precedent can be found in the Wilson government of the late 1960s. Between spring and summer 1969, there was intense speculation about whether Harold Wilson could realistically lead the party into the next election. The Labour prime minister’s attempts to introduce new trade union legislation had proved deeply divisive. There was an atmosphere of revolt in the party not dissimilar to the situation of the Labour Party today, with Callaghan circling as a dangerous pretender. Wilson, like Brown, was accused of betraying the core Labour values.
In August 1969, Wilson’s personal rating fell to 26 per cent, about as bad as it got before the days of internet polling. But, somehow, he recovered. Like now, the public mood was extremely volatile. It is generally thought that both careful handling of the Northern Ireland situation and the gradual recovery of the economy following the 1967 devaluation contributed to a rise in Wilson’s popularity. By October 1969 his personal rating hit 43 per cent, ahead of his rival Edward Heath.
Commenting on this period, Wilson’s biographer Ben Pimlott wrote: “The return of public faith in the government and its leader had an instant effect in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party], where many MPs in marginal seats had begun to feel that, facing certain defeat, they had nothing to lose. With the improvement, and the approach of an election, the threat to Wilson’s position melted away.”
Could Gordon Brown dare to dream of such a recovery? Certainly, the decision by the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, to announce a tax cut for 22 million people to compensate for the abolition of the 10p rate has taken the government’s detractors by surprise. The impending by-election will test whether this, and the government’s new legislative programme, have been enough to buy any electoral success.
Harold Wilson still lost in the end, but in the present atmosphere of seemingly terminal pessimism, many MPs on the government benches would happily take the Wilson outcome: four years in opposition followed by a Labour return to power has to be better than the 18 years in the wilderness after Callaghan’s defeat.