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18 December 2008

A year of ups and downs

What a difference a year made - and for no one more so than Gordon Brown, who earns five of my covet

By Martin Bright

The New Statesman doesn’t do political awards. I’ve always thought it a shame to leave the field clear for Channel 4 and the Spectator, but I also recognise that parliamentarians are the last people on earth who need another boost to their egos. It is particularly difficult to pass judgement this year, as the political class (with a handful of exceptions) was miserably implicated in the failure to foresee the scale of the economic calamity about to hit the country. It is not as if we had insufficient warning. Northern Rock collapsed in September 2007, remember, an event that should have alerted us to the possibility that the credit crunch was likely to hit very hard in 2008.

Another difficulty is that a single politician has dominated the year’s proceedings, not just in his attempts to rescue the country from imminent economic collapse, but, in his own estimation at least, saving the entire world from descent into a pre-industrial barter system. That is the Prime Minister himself, Gordon Brown.

This judgement will fail to surprise cynics who have believed that the New Statesman is the cheerleading “house journal” of the Brownite faction of the Labour Party. So be it. This year, at least, they would be right. For, if there were a New Statesman awards ceremony, the Prime Minister would make a clean sweep of the trophies.

Here, then, are the New Statesman Political Awards for 2008, otherwise known as The Brighties.

Politician of the Year

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There is simply no other contender in this category. In much the same way as the Terminator was more machine than man, at least 90 per cent of Gordon Brown’s DNA is not human, but political. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s screen character, Brown is precision-engineered to annihilate any opposition he encounters. His critics inside and outside the Labour Party should have realised this when he refused to tolerate a credible candidate during the Labour leadership campaign of 2007. Now, as Prime Minister, for better or for worse, he simply dominates the political landscape at the end of 2008.

Speech of the Year

With typical media hyperbole, it was trailed as the speech of his life, but the significance of Brown’s address to the Labour party conference on 23 September 2008 was not, on this occasion, overhyped. If he had fluffed it, as he did the previous year with his shameful “British Jobs for British Workers” speech, he would have found it hard to recover. As it was, the “no time for novices” line was a stroke of genius, dealing with Davids Cameron and Miliband in a single rhetorical blow. More importantly, it has embedded itself in the public consciousness.

Comeback of the Year

This category was a tightly fought, two-way contest and some would think Peter Mandelson more deserving of the title. But the political fortunes of the twice-disgraced Business Secretary had been rising since he was appointed EU trade commissioner in 2004. So, again, the award must go to the Prime Minister, who recovered from 20 points behind in the polls in June to within striking distance of the Tories by the end of the year. Much in the world of politics in 2008 has been unprecedented, but the recovery of Gordon Brown is without parallel.

Hypocrite of the Year

This was a shoo-in for the man at No 10. Late in the year we had the unseemly spectacle of an opposition politician being arrested for receiving leaked documents, made even more unpalatable by the fact that Brown had made his own reputation as shadow chancellor through a series of such leaks. Yet this was just the culmination of a year when the Prime Minister had gone from an evangelising global free-marketeer to a Keynesian state-interventionist. He even managed to blame the international crisis on the failure of international financial institutions, despite chairing the key IMF reform committee up until he became Prime Minister in 2007.

Authoritarian of the Year

Despite a pledge to put constitutional reform at the heart of his political vision, Gordon Brown established his anti- democratic credentials early in 2008. The unelected Prime Minister, who was crowned Labour leader unopposed, used his position to announce his intention to raise the period that terror suspects could be held in detention without charge from 28 to 42 days. He also continued to support the introduction of identity cards. Brown’s democratic instincts were further called into question when he ennobled Peter Mandelson in order to bring him into the cabinet as a peer. The Prime Minister’s failure to condemn the police raid on the Conservative MP Damian Green’s offices in parliament established him as a worthy winner of this award.

Backbencher of the Year

With the Prime Minister dominating the major awards, it seems fair to give a series of lesser awards that he cannot possibly snaffle. Tribal New Statesman readers will be relieved to hear that I have given myself a strict rule not to honour Tories or Liberal Democrats.

There are strong candidates for the first of these prizes. The decision by David Davis to return to the back benches and trigger a by-election in his Haltemprice and Howden constituency over the 42 days detention issue was a brave, if somewhat foolhardy, expression of the importance of defending ancient liberties. Denis MacShane has worked tirelessly on European issues, anti-Semitism, parliamentary democracy and, more recently, libel. It remains a mystery that he does not have a government job. But, for his dignified campaign over the abolition of the 10p tax band that made him an effective thorn in Brown’s side throughout the year, and for reminding the Prime Minister of the people whom the Labour Party is supposed to represent, Backbencher of the Year is Frank Field.

Loyalist of the Year

Alistair Darling is a strong candidate. Having tolerated a wave of vicious attacks from allies of the PM for telling a Guardian journalist that the economic crisis was serious, the Chancellor remained utterly loyal to the government cause. The “Go Fourth” campaign, led by John Prescott, was the surprise success of Labour conference and set the tone for the party’s fightback. But, perhaps controversially, the award goes jointly to Siobhain McDonagh and Joan Ryan, the two ultra-loyal Labour MPs brave enough to call for a leadership contest and tell the Prime Minister the truth – that his own leadership was going off the rails.

Survivor of the Year

This award could go to a number of politicians, including George Osborne, who survived as shadow chancellor despite his excruciating dalliance with the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. Harriet Harman has also had a good year and continues to defy political gravity. David Miliband has weathered the collapse of his leadership bid to establish himself as a respected Foreign Secretary. This is another award that could also go to the Prime Minister, although, alone among politicians, he is the master of his own fate. The real survivor, as the economy crumbles around him, is Alistair Darling, who lives on into 2009 despite all speculation to the contrary.

Moment of the Year

There were some dramatic moments in the House of Commons, including Speaker Martin’s “apology” over the raid on Damian Green’s offices and Alistair Darling’s historic pre-Budget report. David Davis’s resignation was high drama at its best and the Labour party conference was a series of extraordinary events. But the Political Moment of the Year happened beyond the gaze of journalists on the Greek island of Corfu, when Peter Mandelson and George Osborne discussed Gordon Brown over a platter of meze. Little did the young Tory know how completely that sun-drenched conversation was to change the political weather.

Rising Star

Within the cabinet, James Purnell has ploughed a Blairite furrow and steadily enhanced his reputation as a minister and a media performer. Hard-nut Tony McNulty has moved from the thankless job of immigration minister to the impossible job of employment minister and must surely be rewarded with a cabinet post soon. Between them, Liam Byrne and Tom Watson have transformed the Cabinet Office and made No 10 functional once more. But if the Labour Party is looking for vision in the successor generation, then David Lammy is the man to watch in the new year.

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