How many Labour MPs thought it would come to this? Many of them wanted Gordon Brown with a passion, preferring his more socialist approach to Tony Blair’s Third way ambiguity. Many of them thought he was too decisive and powerful to be stopped. Even the minority of loyal Blairites who privately predicted disaster before he was crowned did not have the courage to put up a candidate against him and expose the obvious weaknesses in advance, to spare their party and our nation the agony we are now living through.
Yesterday’s news was a new low for a government which lives by the news and is judged by the headlines.
We had 8000 teachers on strike, making a mockery of Labour’s claim to be the party of “education, education, education”.
We saw the Grangemouth refinery closing down to prepare for a strike over pensions, highlighting the immense damage the government has done to private pension schemes.
A government Minister on TV told us they were taking an active part in ensuring proper supplies of diesel and petrol to Scotland, whilst the same TV programme showed five out of six filling stations they visited had already run out of diesel, with some rationing of petrol.
Over in the City there was more news of the mortgage famine, preventing many young people from buying their first home. Ministers tell us helping such people is one of their aims.
News came of a leading housebuilder announcing it would not be starting work on any new housing sites, as demand was so poor. Ministers have spent the last couple of years lecturing us all on the need to build more homes, and trying to find greenfields they can insist we build over.
In the corridors of Westminster Labour MPs were heard asking if the PM and Chancellor’s climb down the previous day over compensation for some of the losers from Labour’s Income Tax rise was a “con”.
Ministers were still cobbling together some way of sending some money back to people they now admit they are overtaxing, but were unable to explain how much would be sent to how many on what date – and this is sorting out a problem created by a budget delivered a year ago.
The problem for Mr Brown is how to break this desultory cycle of bluster, incompetence and climb down. He wants to avoid looking like James Callaghan bedevilled by strikes, visits to the IMF and high inflation in the 1970s. Clearly the spin strategy this week has been to seek to isolate the 10p tax band problem, make the minimum concession to see them through the otherwise difficult vote next week, and then show resolution in the face of future rebellions. Unfortunately for the PM his backbenchers are suspicious, and will demand more detail before they finally settle the tax question. Meanwhile, the rebels over the ghastly 42 day detention policy have not gone away, and will have learnt from this that The PM does change his mind under pressure. Journalists are already circling the issue, looking forward to dramas ahead.
I enjoyed some of the BBC coverage of the strikes. With a hint of incredulity in his voice, one reporter said it was Labour voters (Meaning NUT members) striking against a Labour government. It was an interesting slip. NUT members were never all Labour voters, even in 1997. They are certainly not all Labour voters today! The left is watching as one arm of the Labour movement, the public sector Trade Unions, turns on another, the Labour party in office. It is not a pretty sight, and it is most disruptive for members of the public caught up in the consequences of the battle. Yesterday it was areas that voted strongly Labour in recent elections which were most affected. Diesel is in short supply in Scotland, and more teachers were on strike and more schools closed proportionately in places like Wales, where people had chosen mainly Labour MPs.
To recover from here the Prime Minister needs to change his character and approach. He needs to become more interested in the underlying problems and seek to solve them. The number one problem is people are short of cash to pay the ever rising bills – he needs to understand the damage tax poverty is doing to his reputation. To solve this he needs to lower taxes, which requires running a more efficient public sector. He needs to show more flexibility and more honesty in dealing with Parliament. Where his whips tell him there could be problems he needs to listen and adapt, rather than talking tough and then conceding. He should not conclude from all this that reform is impossible or undesirable. He should understand that public sector reform requires persuasion, strategy and tactical skill.
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