Brown V Cameron Game over? the New Prime Minister Has Survived His First Floods and His First Terrorist Threat While His Conservative Adversary Has Floundered-All in a Month. Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Reports on a Surge of Optimism about Labour's Prospects
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
As I rose from my seat to get off the train at Blackpool during the 2005 conference season, the grey-haired Scottish gent sitting opposite me decided to give me the benefit of his wisdom for the first time during the long journey from London. He had heard me talking on my mobile phone about the all-pervasive gloom of the Labour Party despite the general election victory, and told me not to be so negative. This Scot, who fancied himself as something of a Labour soothsayer, had a three-part prediction: "Gordon Brown to be prime minister within two years, Des Browne and Douglas Alexander to become senior figures in the cabinet, and Labour elected at the next election with an increased majority."
Perhaps I should have put a bet on. At the time, remember, Tony Blair had not clarified when he would be leaving office. There was even speculation he would stay on to the bitter end of the third term, with some ultra-Blairite commentators urging him to renege on his agreement not to seek a fourth term. Douglas Alexander was Europe minister, unknown to most of the public; as for Des Browne, he was chief secretary to the Treasury, but not seen as an influential figure.
Blairites were still sniping about Gordon Brown's suitability as a future Labour leader and few imagined the chancellor would stand for election unopposed. Charles Clarke was still home secretary and his candidacy for the leadership was still a real possibility. There was the sneaking feeling that Brown would be Labour's "nearly man", who would have the ultimate prize snatched from him. The depiction of Brown as a Shakespearean tragic hero, attributed to Jonathan Powell, took on a real resonance.
Within days of my snatched conversation on the train, David Cameron had wowed the Conservative party conference with a speech that allowed him to leapfrog David Davis in the leadership race. The Tories began to believe that they had finally found a winner.
I dismissed my Caledonian seer as one of Labour's Brownite faithful with no view of the bigger political picture. He is the one smiling now. Two polls in recent days have given Labour a solid lead, cementing a strong revival in the first month of the new Brown government. The recent by-election results in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield were little short of catastrophic for the Tories, who fell from second to third place in Blair's former constituency and failed to make any gain in west London, despite the attentions of Cameron himself.
One senior Brownite MP said that even those around the Prime Minister have been surprised by quite how well things have gone. "If you had told me that four weeks after Gordon took over we would be six points ahead in the polls, I wouldn't have thought that was really possible," he said. The result in Ealing Southall has calmed Labour nerves. In the days running up to the poll, the party was very worried about the personal attention that Cameron had been giving to the seat (and the campaign money that went with it). Following the leaking of postal votes, which seemed to suggest the Tories and Labour were neck-and-neck, one cabinet minister I spoke to said the seat was not considered to be in the bag.
Brown would be unwise to draw national conclusions from two constituencies with such specific local circumstances. But there is certainly no evidence that public hostility towards the Blair government has translated into a pro-Tory sea change in British politics.
Those in Cameron's inner circle are known to have made a minute study of new Labour's rise to power. It cannot have escaped their attention that during this period it became impossible for the Conservatives to hold on to a seat. In December 1994 Ian Pearson won the Dudley West by-election with a 29 per cent swing, the largest for 50 years. Veteran activists also remember the Staffordshire South-East by-election of April 1996, when Labour won with a swing of 22 per cent, and Wirral South in February 1997, when Labour took the seat from the Conservatives with a swing of 17 per cent. …