Friday, 12 October 2007

The honeymoon is over

Apologies for not writing in my Euroblog for so long, I’ve been in the US for some weddings for two weeks and wasn’t getting much news from the old world. But boy did things change while I was away!

When I left, the party conferences in the UK were in full swing and Gordon Brown was riding high on talks of an early snap election based on his high poll numbers and the conservatives’ chronic infighting. Virtually everyone I know in government was telling me that an election was all but certain. People were being told to cancel their vacations, parliament was hurriedly finishing up legislation, it was a frenetic scene. And Gordon Brown, based on his ‘honeymoon period’ bump and his deft handling of a series of crisies over the summer, was projected to lead Labour to a rousing victory, picking up parliament seats from both Lib Dems and Tories.

While I was home people kept asking me how Gordon Brown has been doing in his first months of office, and I went on and on about how well received he’s been by both the public and the media. It was his stark differences from Tony Blair, I kept stressing, which seem to be his greatest asset. Brown is dull and traditional, and that’s exactly what the public wanted. They had become disillusioned with the “American-style” politics of Tony Blair, which in the end, fairly or not, was characterized as a sleek PR trick, all style and no substance. Brown, at last, was everything a British politician was supposed to be.

But all of that fell apart over the last two weeks. Rather than rattling the Tories at their party conference as Labour had hoped, the election speculation actually united them, not a small feat considering how fractious and dysfunctional the party is at the moment. Tory leader David Cameron gave a highly successful speech, highlighting several traditional conservative ideas such as drastically raising the threshold for which one is eligible for the inheritance tax. Following the Tory conference, Brown’s lead in the polls began slipping. Then came the Iraq debacle. Brown made a visit to Baghdad during the Tory conference in order to meet with troops on the ground. The conservatives back home lambasted the visit, saying it was timed to happen exactly before he would call an election. Nearly every conservative at the conference was accusing Brown of playing politics by meeting with troops as a stunt to drum up his patriotic credentials. When Brown got word of this in Iraq his team seemed to enter into a panic, rushing back and trying to reign in the situation. It didn’t work, and the polls continued to look worse. Finally, over this past weekend, Brown definitively put to rest the election speculation. The ambitious election zeal talked up by the “young turks” around him had backfired, badly.

But his troubles weren’t over there. The Tories seized the opportunity to paint Brown as indecisive and weak. The new parliamentary session opened Monday, and the week was highlighted by a disastrous press conference in which the media hammered Brown. He steadfastly denied having squashed the election plans based on declining poll numbers, insisting that even if Labour had a huge lead he wouldn’t have called an election. Now in the US such an obvious denial of reality would probably go unchallenged, but that kind of thing doesn’t fly here in Britain. The press accused him of insulting the public’s intelligence by not admitting that it was the drop in poll numbers that had made him decide against the early election.

Then came prime ministers questions, the time when the parliament is able to ask anything they want of the prime minister. Brown must have known going into it that Cameron would go after him hard, but he could hardly have anticipated the viciousness with which he did so. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen prime ministers questions, but when Americans catch a glimpse of it on C-Span it is usually greeted with complete shock. Never in any US government chamber would you ever see anything even resembling it. It’s raucous, uncivil, and very very exciting. And I love it. In prime ministers questions politicians are able to talk in ways you would only see pundits speak in the US. The passion and candor is refreshing for someone used to US government.

Take a look at this video of Cameron going after Brown in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Can you imagine Nancy Pelosi saying these things to President Bush in a full session of congress?

Truly this is a very different government system! So, right now Labour is in the dumps. The mini budget delivery  was greeted with mockery by the Tories because it seemed to copy their own platform. It was entirely aimed at middle England, and seemed designed as a political stunt to steal the Conservative’s thunder. But instead, it made Brown look calculating and bereft of ideas.

So the mood over at Labour party headquarters is grim. Virtually overnight they’ve watched a sizable lead with a weak opposition in disarray turn into a dead heat and a parliament with two parties with virtually equal political clout. Truly, the honeymoon is over for Gordon Brown. But as Diane Abbott pointed out on This Week last night, it had to end some time. Now we’ll just have to watch to see if Cameron can hold on to this momentum and hold the Tories together for another 18 months until an election really is called, or if their fractious coalition falls apart once again.

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