There appears to be something of a consensus in the air, that these are grim times indeed for Labour MPs; no doubt I’d feel the same if I were one, but I’m not so sure. As each new day seems to release a fresh embarrassment or disastrous development, it really must be the very best time to be a government minister embroiled in a scandal; before the ink has dried on the newspapers cataloguing your failings there seems an inevitability that there will be another mess along in a minute, appearing just around the corner and bumping you off the front page. Take Jacqui Smith for example; just a couple of weeks ago, during the furore over the 5000 illegal immigrants employed in security positions, she faced a welter of criticism and her job was on the line. By last week however, as she triumphantly announced a successful crackdown on firearms, the previous issue had been forgotten and her position seemed unassailable. Yes, these are surely great times to be a Labour MP; less so if you are the Labour PM.
It is also a great time to be a “political blogger” like that Guido Dale fellow, as your blog pretty much writes itself; why bother to flog a dead horse failing to raise the profile of some gossipy shite of no interest beyond your (impressive by blog standards, trivial in the grand scheme of things) readership? Now you can continue to undermine the monolithic MSM by fearlessly reporting the latest twist, turn or insider information the very minute you watch it on the Daily Politics or Newsnight. Sorted.
I know this isn’t a particularly fashionable view to hold, but I do feel a little bit sorry for Gordon Brown in this all. After all his reputation for being a Macavity figure always absent when things go awry, in the event all manner of disasters have dropped on his toes since day one, most of which I don’t think he can convincingly be blamed for (although in fairness, nor can he really take so much of the credit for the competent handling of the floods, foot and mouth, terrorism and so on, but he does, continually.) Some attempts to make him appear culpable for the Northern Rock and Child Benefit incidents seem to be wishful thinking on the part of some commentators, while the more accurate criticisms of Brown – that he lacks a “vision”, is an uncharismatic Commons performer, that he does not possess Blair’s seamless ability to spin in a lawyerly manner – aren’t bad qualities at all in my book. In truth the tipping point in the criticism of Brown was over his (perfectly sensible) decision not to hold an election; before that, in the eyes of the media and public opinion he could almost do no wrong whatever problems came his way, the focus was instead on David Cameron as he suffered over grammar schools and had the very nerve to fulfil an appointment in Rwanda while his constituency was flooded. After Brown’s non-election call it now appears he can do no right, and events have given him little option but to roll with the punches at every PMQs. It is a quite surreal turnaround.
It has become conventional wisdom to say that if you don’t have a “vision” then you need to govern on competence. Now, I would have thought competence wasn’t an optional extra, and that in its absence a “vision” shouldn’t be suffiecient to paper over the cracks, but anyway competence has been in pretty short supply recently; in all fairness, though, I find it hard to lay the blame for incidents like the bizarre security practices at the HMRC directly at the door of Number 10. At least the most recent story over party funding can be clearly associated with the Labour party itself, but for me it is still not enough; these latest errors are more operational or administrative matters than policy matters, and it is the latter that I think we should concentrate on. To a large extent the Tories were kicked out in 1997 due to sleaze and Black Wednesday, but they were terrible reasons for voting in Labour; the Tories had provided far more damning evidence for a change of government during their period in office. So it is with Gordon Brown, that rather than criticise him for being buffeted by events largely beyond his control he should instead be in the firing line for his continued push for ID cards regardless, and his baseless proposal to extend the period for detaining suspected terrorists beyond the current 28 days.
But who cares about that rubbish when we have a scandal? Not the papers, that’s for sure, as they act in accordance with their bizarre sense of priorities; I dare say I’m not the first to notice that judging by the media’s reaction the very worst thing the Sudanese government has engaged in recently is to have gaoled a teacher for naming a teddy Mohammed. Is that all? I must give credit, mind, to the Sudanese judicial system whose actions have been admirably swift, if crazy; but then if you do insist on crazy laws then you can get crazy situations, both abroad and back at home. And the seemingly bizarre incident of Samina Malik and the legislation behind it is for me a far more valid criticism of this government than some of the more newsworthy recent incidents.
Regarding these recent disasters I actually think Gordon Brown is making the best of a bad job. In admitting wrongdoing and (so far) co-operating with the police over the funding issue he is acting very differently to the way Blair behaved and that is refreshing; although you could say he has little choice I’m not sure that’s true. If you do want to criticise Brown it should be over the stupid things he has actually said – such as the “British jobs for British workers” quote, whatever that means – rather than the fact that he lacks a sense of humour. Criticise his government for drift by all means, but not because of an “impression of drift”, as I have read numerous times; that is as nonsensical as the government’s assertion that we should create laws to “send a signal” to this, that or the other, when we should only create laws for a definite purpose. And again, the carefree and thoughtless way this government apporaches legislation is another, more important matter that we should be criticising them for more often.
Is there any chance we can debate genuine matters of policy and their effects anytime soon? Perhaps we will see a media wind-down up to Christmas and a new broom for the New Year; but while the funding row still seems to have legs, and God knows what other revelation are still to come out, I wouldn’t bet on it.
PostScript; this post has been sat in my drafts folder since Friday, when a trip to the pub, a shop at the Christmas markets, goddamn work and other things prevented me from giving it a final read through. So here – with a few minor amendments due to the intervening chronology, and in the spirit of the Labour party’s current “get the bad stuff out in the open” policy – it is. Now; let’s click “publish” and release the trackback spam.