Magazine article Public Finance

Shuffling the Pack

Magazine article Public Finance

Shuffling the Pack

Article excerpt

There might be an August full in speculation over Gordon Brown's future. But the prime minister faces a testing September as he seeks to relaunch his government. After a summer marked by Foreign Secretary David Miliband's veiled leadership bid, and some unions backing Health Secretary Alan Johnson as an alternative, Brown will need to do much more than produce a strong economic plan or a cracking conference speech to survive.

This is not just about communications. The PM fares badly against the former public relations professional, David Cameron. But with a far clearer sense of where he and his government are heading, he could overcome that weakness and regain credibility for his government, while exposing the paucity of Conservative thinking. This means having the right policies and the right team to deliver them.

Brown's problems owe much to a combination of confused messages on major policies and a tendency to substitute micromanagement for strategic focus. The recently leaked memo, supposedly written by Tony Blair last year, complained that Brown had 'dissed' New Labour's own record, warning that this was 'a fatal mistake if we do not correct it'.

To be fair, since January, Brown has started to change tack. There has been more clarity in the government's education, health, energy and welfare reform policies.

But this has been ignored by a media that views the government as past its sell-by date - a process that has been exacerbated by the earlier 'dissing' of reforms. Both the public and the commentariat believe that Labour is playing second fiddle to the Tories in the battle of ideas.

Education is a good example. Tinkering with the independence of academies, an attack on church school admissions and confusion over the future of ?-levels have enabled the Conservatives' astute spokesman, Michael Gove, to win an intellectual advantage over Schools Secretary Ed Balls. This is at a time when Gove has been ditching support for new grammar schools and embracing Labour's academies alternative.

In fact, Brown has expanded academies faster than was planned by Blair. Balls has targeted 638 lowattaining secondary schools in the inner cities for rapid improvement and Brown has been keen to use academies as an instrument of school reform. But the prime minister's early reluctance to sing their praises for fear of upsetting backbenchers has given Gove an advantage on a subject that was Labour's own.

Across several policy areas, stealthy radicalism has meant that Brown has been denied any credit as a reformer. …

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