Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Something or Nothing?

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown, hmmm...
Having found myself a little out of step with the consensus on other party conference speeches I was a little reluctant to comment on Gordon Brown's offering to party and nation yesterday, but that would be a bit lily-livered.

With Gordon I seem to be more in the mainstream of not knowing exactly what to make of it. Despite a valiant attempt by the Today programme to portray it as a triumph, appealing to Guardian and Telegraph readers alike, even reading these particular publications themselves reveals a much more equivocal response to the speech from their particular political standpoints.

On a personal level, despite my personal disagreement with Brown's self image of honesty and probity, I was reasonably moved by the more personal aspects of the speech, which did give some sense of the foundations of his personal political philosophy. The relatively low key, and occasionally faltering delivery if anything enhanced these aspects of the speech in a way that a totally stage managed, barnstorming effort might not have done.

The goals Brown committed to himself were, I am sure in the eyes of any reasonable person regardless of their politics, perfectly laudable. This was obviously the key message Brown wanted to be taken away from the speech, but naturally as a Conservative leaning voter the scream of "but you've had ten years, not two months Gordon" went up in my head.

The occasional foray into more concrete policy was more disappointing, and probably explains the general apathy in the media, other than the Independent, about it. Most of the claims that it was simply reheated existing Labour policy mixed in with a little microwaved ex-Conservative manifesto fare seem pretty well founded.

What it did not come over as is as an election rallying cry, and my personal gut instinct on an October poll shifted quite a lot towards the 'no' side.

Despite the many good reasons for Brown to go to the country as soon as possible I just can't get past two main obstacles as I see them.

Firstly there is the innate caution of the man and the underlying fear there must be of the possibility, however remote, of something beyond his control derailing his bandwagon. The way expectations are currently set, anything other than a very substantial majority would probably be painted as a failure, and after such a short time in office after so long a wait, I doubt this is a possibility that Brown's ego would risk opening up.

I think a second factor though is much more significant and much more concrete. The fly in the ointment for Gordon, as for so many other UK Prime Ministers surveying their election prospects, is the EU, this time in the form of the reform treaty.

It's so often tempting to draw parallels between Gordon Brown and John Major in their respective positions in following a more charismatic but more divisive leader. Some of these are pretty superficial, but in this case their problem is similar and I suspect the experience of Major will way heavily on the current Prime Minister.

Both had a document on the table, the Maastricht treaty in Major's case, that for better or worse they felt and feel to be the best deal they could get. As is the case with Brown today, Major was desperate to get the document signed off, and off the political agenda, but faced considerable voices, including from a significant section of his own party and the country as a whole, either wholly against the treaty, or at least saying that it should be put to the country to decide on.

The lesson from history that I suspect will weigh on Brown's mind is that John Major did sign the unpopular treaty, two months before going to the country in an election which he ultimately managed to win, without making fundamental concessions over the ratification process for the treaty during the election. It is true that that in the subsequent parliament the ratification process was damaging to the Conservative party, but in Major's mind was probably the least bad option open too him. As far as Europe was an issue in 1997 it was more the perception that the party was split on the issue that was damaging, rather than that a bad treaty had been passed into law, and in any case other issues were more dominant.

My suspicion is that Brown will see a similar pattern as being the 'least bad' option for him too, and will wager, probably correctly, that any splits in the Labour party will be far more superficial as the numbers against the treaty in principle are relatively small.

In essence, there are two scenarios. If Gordon fights an election in October the EU will be a very hot issue, especially with an IGC scheduled to address the treaty just before a likely polling day. The Conservatives are much more in tune with the country as a whole on this issue and could probably land some very heavy blows, with a huge risk in Brown's eyes that people may 'lend' Cameron votes on the issue, regardless of headline opinion poll numbers. It is questionable whether Brown could now neutralise the issue by offering a referendum, as it would cause too many shock waves with the EU as a whole, would seem terribly opportunistic, and it is doubtful whether trust levels over such a promise would be sufficient to see the issue killed stone dead.

The alternative is to wait, sign the treaty if and when it is ready, then face the flak of going through a parliamentary ratification process. Yes there would be political damage, but how much? As much as many dislike the current proposals, the cry of "look what he is going to do" is in many ways stronger than "look what he did". Conservative claims to be able to turn the clock back at a subsequent election would be, probably rightly, ridiculed and, being the pragmatic type of people we are, many would probably take a "what's done is done" attitude and move on to other issues.

I don't like it, in any way, shape or form, but this seems to me to be the least risky strategy for a long tenure in Number 10 for Brown, and being the kind of person he is I'm sure it's a line he is considering.

So there it is, colours nailed firmly to the mast, no October election. On my current form though, I'd suggest you circle October the 25th in your diaries!

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