As Each New Day Brings a Fresh Disaster, Have We Had Enough of Brown as PM?

Article excerpt

Byline: By Tomos Livingstone Western Mail

After a week that saw the Government lose 25 million child benefit records and come under fire from all sides, Political Editor Tomos Livingstone wonders whether the Prime Minister can bounce back after his five days from hell

THE talk at Westminster is of the tipping point. Have we reached the stage where public opinion has moved decisively against Gordon Brown?

The Prime Minister has had a week that can only be described as atrocious, with each new day bringing a fresh disaster.

His Labour Party is now well behind the Conservatives in the polls, and voters are telling pollsters that they are losing trust in ministers' ability to run the economy.

Cabinet colleagues are now wondering how on earth they got themselves into this position.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was a best-selling book back in 2000, and I suppose a junior HMRC clerk losing CDs in the post counts as a little thing.

The fact that the CDs contained the records of 25 million people makes the big difference.

The debacle couldn't have come at a worse time for the Government, exposing as it does a blithe attitude at HMRC and the National Audit Office to data security rules. A series of emails between the two bodies released to the press makes no mention whatsoever of the privacy implications of popping the database in a padded envelope.

Ministers are already grappling with problems at Northern Rock, propped up with pounds 24bn of public money and with no plan emerging as to how the funds will be repaid.

A damning report over the sale of part of the MoD's research arm, Qinetiq, hasn't helped either, and Gordon Brown has even had a co-ordinated attack from disgruntled former military chiefs to contend with. Not to mention the new leak from the Pirbright animal health laboratory which raised fears of a foot-and-mouth outbreak.

The Qinetiq shambles will pass into memory, as will the splutterings of Admiral Lord Boyce. But the missing discs will stick in the public mind as a symbol of government incompetence - a notion that is difficult to scrub from the public mind once it's there.

And Northern Rock looks like hanging round the Treasury's neck like an albatross for some time to come. Having no clear idea of how to get then pounds 24bn back is bad enough, and the prospect that another bank could go the same way must be causing some sleepless nights.

The easy comparison is with the Conservatives' Black Wednesday in 1992, when the pound was spat out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, interest rates touched 15% and tens of thousands lost their homes.

But the analogy doesn't really survive close scrutiny. Black Wednesday was a single event - a tipping point if ever there was one, which dealt the Tories a blow from which they have only recently begun to recover.

Another tipping point has been creeping up on Gordon Brown and Labour. The non-election debacle, the fiasco over whether illegal immigrants were working in the security industry - and even Northern Rock - could on their own be seen as little things. But they add up to a sense of a Government barely in control of events.

Missing data discs have only accelerated a process of what we might call tipping creep, whereby you wake up in Downing Street one morning and find yourself 10 points behind in the polls, but unable to pinpoint exactly when the problem started.

Mr Brown said a month ago he had proved himself to be competent, and now wanted to concentrate on unveiling his vision for the country. Huge efforts were poured into key speeches on personal liberty and foreign affairs.

Their content is already forgotten, and the competence remark seems ill-judged in the light of this week's events.

Things, Gordon Brown may reason, can only get better from now on. But he'll know full well that once the political scales have tipped against you, it takes an almighty force to move them back the other way. …