Friday, 4 July 2008

Can history be kind to Gordon?

Poor Gordon, all those years as Chancellor of the Exchequer followed by a successful mini-coup to force Tony to leave office early, crowned new Labour Party leader by acclamation and then into the limo to be invited by Mrs Queen to take office as Prime Minister. Floods and oropodiatric pestilence rained down upon the British people within weeks but Gordon saved the day. So, why "poor" Gordon?

Well, just look at him now. Inflation is back, government coffers are empty despite record taxation, his party's finances even worse, Labour candidates annihilated at every election, whispers even from cabinet ministers that he isn't up to the job and, perhaps worst of all for him, he gives the impression to many of us of a man out of his depth and with no able people around him to take some of the burden (not that he would delegate if he had that option). Is there a way back? Of course anything can happen in politics but it is always wise to find comparable situations from history and see whether they point us to a conclusion.

The previous Prime Minister but one, John Major, faced similar difficulties after the collapse of the ERM in September 1992. One significant similarity between then and now is the character of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. John Major appointed Norman Lamont to that position in 1990. It seemed a logical appointment he had been very effective, if not particularly inspiring, in previous cabinet positions within the Treasury and had achieved a good reputation as Major's second-in-command. Mr Darling was also seen as a "safe pair of hands", firmly wedded to Gordon's economic policies and with significant cabinet experience behind him.

Both Lamont and Darling, however, appeared to completely lose control when the excrement hit the fan. The pattern was exactly the same - "we're doing the right thing, we've made the right decisions, we're sticking to our guns, you'll see in the long run, there will be no change of policy, there is no need to change policy, a change of policy would be bad for Britain" followed just a few days later by a complete u-turn delivered with a look of almost palpable personal humiliation on their faces.

Lamont lasted just six months and from then until now has blamed Major for the whole mess. But Major then had a great stroke of good fortune, his choice as Lamont's successor, Ken Clarke, proved to be an inspired selection. Freed from the ERM Clarke's careful stewardship (building on many good things done by Lamont) led not only to economic stability and growth but was coupled with Clarke's natural skills as a communicator so that the improvement was sold effectively. We can argue until the cows come home about John Major's suitability for the top job but there can be no denying that a strong economy was bequeathed to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in 1997. Had Norman Lamont remained in office he might or might not have achieved the same, we will never know. What we do know is that Major as Prime Minister and Clarke as Chancellor presided over an economy which went from strength to strength. When the election came in 1997 it was not the general state of the economy that lost it for Major. He was allowed a second chance with his second Chancellor and had a clear run of 4 years to turn things round.

Gordon Brown's position is rather different. He, like Major, is saddled with a Chancellor who has been seen to panic and to be guided by events rather than leading them; but Brown does not seem to have a Ken Clarke to turn to. To make things worse, any systemic problem in the economy must be laid squarely on Brown's plate because he was Chancellor for 10 years and exercised greater power in that role than any of his post-War predecessors. To make things worse again he has less than 2 years to turn the current disaster into the glowing success he has always claimed the British economy to be on his watch.

Any critic of John Major can be blunted, at least in part, by reference to the performance of the economy from 1993 to 1997. His part in the 1992 debacle was mitigated by future events. In contrast, there simply is not enough time for the current adverse circumstances to work their way through the system and allow significant recovery. Gordon Brown, if still in office in 2010, will go to the people with his boasts of having brought permanent stability still ringing in their ears while the reality will not match his claims - claims that are not only false but also an admission that primary responsibility for difficulties lies with him. He can fiddle with other policies but at least 3 "re-launches" of his Premiership have been attempted over the last year and still he is in the doldrums, so we cannot infer that he will be judged by any policy other than the economy.

He has no one to blame, no one to hide behind and no time to recover. Poor Gordon, indeed.

No comments: