By: MIKE JOHNSON
Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.
IT MUST have already dawned on Gordon Brown that history may be about to be written, but not in the way he would have wished. After having waited 10 long years to succeed Tony Blair, and having completed just one year in office, he now seems likely to be one of the shortest-serving British prime ministers on record – and never to have been elected.
Following disastrous local election results and the loss of the London Mayoralty to the Conservatives, Brown looks to be the typical example of someone who has been promoted just one grade higher than his capabilities. It might seem incredible to an outsider that a significant number of Labour MPs are already talking of mounting a challenge to his leadership.
The hard, unpleasant facts are these; Labour finished in third place, with a 24 per cent share of the votes, behind the Tories with 44 per cent and the Liberal Democrats with 25 per cent. This is a worse result than Tony Blair suffered four years ago at the height of his unpopularity over the Iraq war. If repeated at a general election, the Conservatives would sweep to power with an overall majority of more than 100 seats.
Worse still, with Labour having been in control of London for 30 years, the defeat of the current mayor, Ken Livingstone, by Boris Johnson – described by one observer as “a genial but raffish Etonian toff” – must have been their worst nightmare. Yet it had been Margaret Thatcher who had been instrumental in turning Livingstone’s fortunes for the better, way back in 1986.
Faced with ‘Red Ken’, the last of Labour’s Trotskyites, in City Hall, frustrating her every move, she abolished the Greater London Council (GLC). Then, in 2000, Livingstone stood as an independent in the election for Mayor of London – a new post introduced by Tony Blair. He beat the official Labour candidate and served two four-year terms.
During this time, he mellowed somewhat and, by making the office non-partisan, and introducing measures which turned the metropolis into a booming enterprise, he became the people’s champion. However, by seeking a third term at a time when Labour was undergoing a period of national unpopularity, and he, himself, was being accused of cronyism and extravagance, he was inviting defeat.
In the event, with a massive turnout, more people voted for Livingstone in defeat in 2008 than had swept him to victory twice before. The campaign was electric, with packed audiences attending the public debates, and the media keenly waiting for each candidate to make the fatal slip. Boris Johnson, already Conservative MP for Henley-on-Thames, was prone to making such gaffes.
After being appointed Shadow Arts Minister in 2004, he had said, “Look, the point is…er, what is the point? It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.” A year later, on the campaign trail for the general election, he famously promised, “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3.” This time, an Australian-led team of advisors ensured there were no such slips.
Where, though, does all this leave Gordon Brown? His initial response to the defeats was to admit that the current state of the economy – although a global problem – was what caused voters most concern. He also admitted he had been wrong to abolish the 10p rate of income tax in the last Budget, which had caused anger among lowest-paid workers and pensioners, not to mention among his own back-bench MPs.
How could this man, who claimed to have led Britain through its greatest period of economic growth as Chancellor of the Exchequer, have got things so wrong? Watching him being interviewed on TV, two days after defeat, he seemed particularly ill at ease. “I understand what people are thinking and I understand what people are feeling,” was his first comment, but he then singularly failed to reassure them.
Instead, his only plans were to “get out more and meet people”, to listen more, to empathise and to apologise. Later in the day, he said his cabinet team would announce a series of measures in the next few days, which would re-vitalise his government’s programme. This, though, is not what is needed. The public needs to feel that Gordon Brown knows where he’s going, and what he’s doing, and, on both counts, he is failing them.
A general election can be held at bay until 2010, by which time he can hope things will have improved, but what are the chances of a leadership coup before then? Under new party rules, introduced towards the end of Tony Blair’s premiership, it is necessary for more than 70 Labour MPs to back a challenge and, in the current climate, there is not thought to be the appetite for this.
However, a strengthening of what is seen as a lightweight cabinet, by bringing back some senior Blair supporters – maybe Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn – might be a realistic, if unpalatable, alternative for the prime minister. Whether it would be enough to upset the Conservative bandwagon, which appears to be gathering speed, is another matter. David Cameron, in the driving seat, could be facing a similar crisis of identity as he eyes his mayoral colleague.
Both are Old Etonians and went to Oxford University, and both know how to play the media. More, however, will be required of Cameron. It is one thing to trounce Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions each week – it’s another to show he is a serious contender for the top job. Instead of producing ‘sound bites’ to order, he must come up with concrete party proposals on taxation, health and education. Only then will he be taken seriously.