Magazine article Public Finance

Castles in the Air

Magazine article Public Finance

Castles in the Air

Article excerpt

THE CONTRASTING STYLES of summer holiday chosen this year by the prime minister and the leader of the Opposition say much about contemporary British politics. Gordon Brown let it be known he would be taking 'a few days off', while we later discovered that part of his break would be spent doing community work in his constituency. The PM's 'staycation' would be taken in Scotland and the Lake District. David Cameron, by contrast, was quoted as saying 'people deserve a good holiday' before heading off to Greece and then France. He also admitted to starting his break by reading a 'trashy novel'.

Brown is like Margaret Thatcher, who was notorious for hating holidays and would rush back to Downing Street for the smallest crisis. Cameron looks more like Tony Blair, with his taste for exotic sojourns in the homes of celebrities such as Sir Cliff Richard. Everyone has, presumably, been steering clear of oligarch-owned yachts.

What Brown, Blair and other political leaders should have been able to do as they relax is to reflect on the state of politics, the economy and everything else. The party conference season is only a month away. From then on, there will be a near- continuous election campaign until polling day early next year. Following the batter- ing received by MPs this year, notably be- cause of the expenses scandal, this will mean one particularly heavy political year after another. Moreover, the country's future is such that government will become even more challenging than normal in the years ahead.

Gordon Brown will also start the new political year attempting to avoid a further leadership challenge. Following Labour dissidents' abortive effort to unseat him last June, the threat of another putsch has never really gone away. Although most MPs of all parties assume Labour has already lost the 2010 election, some government backbenchers will still be thinking that if Brown could be replaced with Alan Johnson they might just hold their own seat. A change of leader, they will calculate, could keep 30 to 50 Labour MPs in Parliament and, more importantly, make it far easier for the party to return to power in 2014 or 2015.

David Cameron faces a different problem. Precisely because he is heir- apparent to the threadbare realms of Downing Street, people will expect him to come up with significantly more de- tailed plans than he and his colleagues have thus far managed. Battering the prime minister at Question Time once a week might win the annual Punch and Judy award, but it is a long way from coping with the banking crisis, public service funding or climate change. We all know governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them. But the electorate has to have confidence in the Opposition before it will let them win: remember Neil Kinnock in 1992.

At the end of July, Cameron basked in rare praise from none other than Lord Mandelson who, before slipping off for a break in Corfu ('no Russians, no yachts, no Osborne'), in an interview with the London Evening Standard accepted that the Tory leader had got the better of Brown over the issue of spending cuts versus investment because: 'We should have been faster in realising how they were attempting to define us.' This was, in reality, classic Mandelson tactics, as it was actually Labour (especially uberBrownite Children's Secretary Ed Balls) who had attempted to define the Conservatives as cutters.

Subsequently, Mandelson launched a coruscating attack on Osborne following the letter's speech to Demos on August 11, which argued that the Conservatives were now the progressive party in British politics. Mandelson attempted not only to pour scorn on the idea of the Tories as progressives, but also to argue that there would, after all, be a difference between Labour's spending plans and the Conservatives' reductions in spending provision. Osborne clearly irked Mandelson, and not for the first time.

Labour found they had deliberately placed themselves on the wrong side of a major political argument, just as they had with the Gurkhas issue. …

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