I always knew the former Chancellor was no good at economics. Whilst most people were busily repeating Labour spin about his genius at running the economy, I was critical of the way he trashed the Bank of England and taxed the pension funds to death at the beginning, disagreed with the huge surge of public spending, borrowing and credit in the middle, and disliked the stealth taxes, the nationalisation of Northern Rock and endless changes to the figures that followed. He is now reaping what he sowed. Far from having the best placed economy to handle the downturn we have one of the weakest.
I did always think, however, he was a very shrewd politician. He after all was a colossus in a party of minnows – so much so that none of the pygmies around him dared to offer their party a choice when he finally saw off Blair. Gordon Brown was in many ways the arch spinner of the Blair era, and the Brown era was ushered in with a welter of new spin. So confident was the new regime that they even spun that they did not spin, knowing that spin had been discredited. The endless rows and disputes of the Blair/Brown years ended with the departure of Blair. It looked as if the new era would be one of iron discipline and message control.
The last few days show a complete breakdown in political discipline. Miliband’s recipe for a better government was bound to be seen as a leadership bid by a media hungry to take the leadership story on. Journalists are clearly being fed many stories by Labour MPs and briefers about leadership uncertainty. Harriet Harman’s people must have briefed she would be the first woman in Number 10 since Margaret Thatcher, in charge for a week of Gordon’s holidays. That too was bound to lead to unhelpful speculation, and looked bizarre when someone counter briefed that the PM himself was still in charge from the beach. Friends of Jack Straw have been busy denying he is putting himself about at this sensitive time. We read that maybe 10 junior Minsiters are ready to resign to destabilise things further, and that Alan Johnson is wanted to help put the “message” across. You would need to be some snakeoil salesman to sell to the public the current toxic mix of higher taxes,more public waste, higher borrowing, and a sharp squeeze on everyone’s income to pay for some of the public excess.
Last year an eager Prime Minister used the first excuse to return to mind the shop, cancelling the holiday. He could easily have spared more time away. This year he has been persuaded to take three weeks off. That is a very long time in the hothouse atmosphere his colleagues are creating. There is the danger that the political “narrative” as Labour like to call it will have been wrenched so far away from the one the PM wants by the time he does get back that it will be difficult for him to turn it around. Last year he took too short a holiday. This year he may end up taking too long a holiday.
As there are phones in Southwold he would be well advised to use them to get a grip. He needs to assert his authority over Miliband, Harman, Johnson and the rest as quickly as possible. He needs to supply some sense of direction to the country as awell as to his party.