Saturday, 4 October 2008

Desperation is the British Way?

Suddenly I believe in the resurrection of the dead. Back comes Peter Mandelson and even Margaret Beckett.

The whole point about the Brown government after Blair was that he filled it with political minnows, people who could not challenge him for a while for his leading seat, where Gordon Brown would stay the one and only Great Leader.

Unfortunately, his indecision and his oft quoted "end to boom and bust" that was a credit boom leading to today's bust, has led to intense mutterings that he would have to go even if the talent to replace him was new and not quite rounded and ready. Charles Clarke was the biggest Blair critic from the sidelines, who said Brown has to turn the government around but doubted he could do it.

Brown's Chancellor was also a political minnow, a kind of no one man who has had to learn the job quickly, and now has to provide Brown with at least something. Alistair Darling is all Brown had and all we had got, so suddenly Darling has had to do more. It is like setting up a cabinet of middle managers all having to be executives on the Board of Directors. Some can manage it and some are overwhelmed, and look who is the latest to be overwhelmed. We have a Home Secretary who looks lost: outmanoeuvred by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, in losing the Chief of the Metropolitan Police, she puts up vague appeals to Boris having done naughty things when she had the powers to act and to resist. It's like the government is increasingly paralysed.

Desperate times and desperate measures. First of all back comes Mandelson, third time lucky indeed (out twice for reasons of sleaze), and why him? Two reasons. The first is he is an effective negotiator and operator by all accounts. He has trade, international and business knowledge, and he can work government. The second is that he represents the opposition within Labour to Brown. Bring in your enemies, when your enemies are gathering. Yet being close to Brown won't stop Mandelson wielding any necessary knife. And then back comes Margaret Beckett, which is a puzzle, as she was a pretty pathetic Foreign Secretary, again giving the sort of impression of someone promoted higher than they can go. She wanted to go out, but now she is back to apparently co-ordinate. That is something Brown was doing too, but presumably he will be busier.

One has to wonder whether an eighteen person National Economic Council, basically a cabinet next to the Cabinet, is going to decide anything. It is headed by Brown, Mandelson (straight to the top) and Darling, with others and officials. Better with the three of them and a few scribes, one would have thought.

All this follows dedicated Roman Catholic Ruth Kelly's botched resignation that will see her go all the way out of Parliament. I regard her rather like David Alton in the old Liberals: their dedication to their Church's social and ethical outlook clashes with the times. She was also pretty hopeless in all her jobs, and should have been dropped - but then she was a minnow and fitted the bill.

One wonders why Brown doesn't bring back Blair! Mandelson is actually the nearest thing to that.

When Mandelson came back in, I immediately said to myself, "Mandelson will be Prime Minister." Of course this cannot happen as of now, because he is being made a Lord to get him into the Cabinet. So a very serious front-line politician will be reporting to the wrong House. Surely they should make a vacancy, and a certain Ruth Kelly could have obliged by going now. She's going only at the end of term. Perhaps they have no confidence that any Labour MP can be elected now, even "a fighter and not a quitter". However, I wouldn't put it past Mandelson to use the process created by Tony Benn all those decades back to remove his given title and get himself to the House of Commons. After all, Mandelson could run the country.

John Major as Prime Minister was pretty well politically shattered as that Conservative Government marched towards its destruction in 1997. He too rested on an old big hitter as hold-me-ups. Heseltine (and to a lesser extent Hurd) held up the diminishing John Major. So the phase is parallel. Heseltine could not stop the inevitable, of course, and his time to be Prime Minister was gone.

The difference is this: there was nothing in the Conservative Party conference that gave the sense that here was was a hungry team ready to take on the reins of power. With the exception of Hague the orator, but not the exception of Osborne (who looks almost scared and is making stupid promises about Council Tax that no one believes), they also look like political minnows. Cameron seems to be substance-free: it just looks like appearance all the time. The Brown charge of "novice" found its target, despite the fact that the present guy in charge has made so many mistakes and played politics with major decisions, and despite the fact that this government in a year or so will be exhausted. When the Conservatives were failing and collapsing into their own intrigues, Labour under Blair, Brown, Mandelson and Campbell were keen and ready - they gave the sense that they could be decisive.

We also see talent in the Liberal Democrats in a way that wasn't quite the case before, and only emerged within the New Labour period (on foreign affairs). This may make a bigger difference than some commentators allow for, and why, still, even if the Labour party collapses, it does not follow that the Conservatives will simply grab a large majority, though a working majority might now fall into its lap. In the next year there is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to sharpen up its appeal further, to work on the inner urban Labour seats and defend itself from Conservatives; unfortunately it has become like two regional parties of north and south, now that it has come in from the fringes, and this requires renewed tactical abilities with policies and appeal.

What is coming is a phase of government to manage the job losses and the decline that follows the lack of borrowing, the lack of cash flow and the end to the consumer road to growth. The real economy, rather than some fantasy one we have lived by for too long, is nowhere near as busy when other parts of the world are cheaper and more efficient, even with a financial system made more stable. We still have to have the credit bubble removed out of house prices, and we will need means to provide basic provision in an era of basics being expensive and the many not having the wealth they had imagined. Mandelson's test is whether he can find means to regeneration in a real economy: in business growth, in trade and in actual, real, added-value work.

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