Gordon's Gambles: From Economic Slowdown to Official Secrets, Gordon Brown Faces a Bumpy Ride in 2008. Our Political Editor, Martin Bright, Predicts the Year Ahead
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
The New Statesman does not employ an astrologer and the usual rule of thumb is that political predictions are as useful as a handful of homoeopathic sugar-pills. But this year we have been persuaded to indulge in journalistic crystal-gazing, because it looks set to be one heck of a 12 months. By the end of 2008 we will have a good idea whether this government is in any state to win an unprecedented fourth election, or whether the current climate of wintry gloom will prove deadly. Much will depend on whether the Conservatives (or, indeed, the Liberal Democrats) build themselves into a credible force.
Almost exactly a year ago, Tony Blair received a festive visit from Scotland Yard to question him about the "cash for honours" affair, in which campaign payments for the 2005 election were hidden as loans. One near certainty at the time was that Gordon Brown would succeed Blair during 2007, but no one could have predicted that the new Prime Minister would himself be engulfed by a police probe into secret donations. There is nothing more corrosive to trust in politicians than the suggestion of dirty money. The Brown administration is wise to this. Cross-party talks on funding, suspended in October after just five meetings, will have to restart, so look out for a compromise deal within weeks.
Apologies for reheating a prediction from last year's NS Christmas special (just goes to show how tricky soothsaying can be): "It is likely that the first stories about a Lib Dem-Conservative electoral pact will emerge in 2007," we said. There were rumours of talks about talks, but nothing substantial materialised. The trouble for the Tories was that Menzies Campbell was never the man to make the deal, because of a historical loyalty to his old friend Brown. No such scruples need bother the new Lib Dem leader. The Tories will argue that in the event of a hung parliament, the third party will have a moral obligation to opt for a change of government.
During the series of crises that followed the "election that never was", Brown has consoled himself with the plaudits he received for his reaction to early events in his premiership: the failed terror attacks, the floods and foot-and-mouth. Sir Michael Pitt's independent report into ministers' response to the floods will provide the first assessment of the new administration in the face of a crisis. Anything negative in the report will be seized on by Brown's enemies to suggest that the honeymoon was all hype.
One of Brown's first acts as PM, in order to establish his brand, was to set up a series of reviews of Blairite policies about which he had always been less than convinced: supercasinos, 24-hour licensing and the downgrading of cannabis classification. The first of these will be published in January and the last in April. The announcement of the reviews allowed Brown to represent himself as a breath of fresh air sweeping away the excesses of the Blair era. This was the very essence of Brownite new puritanism: designed to be equally attractive to the Daily Mail and core Labour supporters.
But the real test will come when Brown is asked to reveal what he really thinks. Will he actually take on the drinks and gambling industries? Will he reverse the downgrading of cannabis and risk boosting the prison population still further? An initial analysis of his decision-making processes suggests that he takes all the available advice he is given, goes into a period of intense self-examination, hesitates and then plumps for the compromise option. This showed itself most clearly over the issue of extending the period that terror suspects can be held without trial from 28 days. Blair and the police had originally wanted 90 days. The outgoing attorney general, the serving Director of Public Prosecutions and the Tories said 28 days was sufficient. So Brown opted for an arbitrary 42 days, guaranteeing his first backbench rebellion of the New Year. …