Magazine article Public Finance

Master and Commander

Magazine article Public Finance

Master and Commander

Article excerpt

All over Britain the cry has gone up in Labour households, 'Bring back Brown'. The party's election campaign is officially in disarray, lacking, it would seem, that steady strategic hand on the tiller that only the chancellor can provide.

At first glance, there is much to be said for this analysis. Ever since the chancellor was bounced from his traditional role at the helm of the Labour campaign and replaced by Alan Milburn, the party appears to have fared badly at the hands of a re-energised Tory offensive. Milburn might have many qualities but he has yet to show that he operates in Gordon Brown's league, politically or strategically.

Of course, Labour did not win the 1997 or 2001 elections simply because Brown masterminded the campaigns. But, given how well both campaigns went, it was a brave decision by the prime minister to strip him of command this time.

The reasons for the decision are well rehearsed. Tony Blair wants his last term to be decidedly Blairite, and believes the chancellor applied the brake to his ambitions in the last campaign. But the cost of this is the final alienation of the chancellor and the identification of the campaign and the election result entirely with Blair and his cohorts. If the result is good, this does not matter. But if it goes badly, it is a personal defeat for the prime minister and his creed.

Brown, the theory continues, can therefore sit back and watch the Blairites screw it up. This week's Budget was, of course, his opportunity to show how much better the campaign - and the party - would be were his undoubted political genius being fully utilised.

There are, however, flaws to this theory. Not the least of these is that Labour's majority is likely to be Brown's inheritance, so while he would certainly savour his rival's problems, the outcome of the election is too important for him to sit back and do nothing if he believed it were heading for disaster. By far and away, the best outcome is the perception of disaster in which Labour wins well in spite of what is felt to have been a bad campaign. Brown's mates have been happy to help foster that view.

So what is the evidence of how Milburn is doing? Well, Labour's posters have been terrible, the headlines have been bad and the Tories have got a bit of a following wind. There is little evidence so far of a positive Milburnian impact and there is a general desire to see this strutting minister deflated, especially among Labour devotees who are already largely pro-Brown.

But a few opposition hits on target - thanks to some adroit use of individual cases of public service failure - do not amount to an election strategy. …

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