It is no surprise, and no cause for panic, that Gordon Brown has
enjoyed a spate of modest popularity since becoming prime minister.
Anyone coming new to the job would look good and appeal to the public simply by
having replaced its previous discredited and blood-sodden occupant.
The Liberal Democrats have been fond of using the slogan “it’s time for a
change” and, after the Blair decade, voters were bound to look favourably on any
It is hard to remember now that John Major was once a popular figure merely by
virtue of not being Margaret Thatcher, who exhausted the public’s patience just
as did Blair.
People tend to hope that a change of administration will mean that whatever they
most disliked about the old one will be rectified, and so are willing for a
while to give it the benefit of the doubt.
There was nothing much the Liberal Democrats could have done either to prevent
the ‘Brown bounce’ or to gain traction with the public while it is in progress.
The party’s position was hardly helped, though, by Ming Campbell’s baffling
behaviour over Brown’s offer of cabinet posts to Lib Dems.
Brown: “I’m going to make you an offer that would tie your party to me, neuter
it as an independent force and lose most of your MPs their seats.”
Campbell: “How frightfully fascinating, I’ll need a few days to mull that one
Nor has it been helped by the embarrassment of three peers taking formal
advisory posts to Brown; they should have been told that, if they wanted to do
that, the whip would be withdrawn.
These unedifying episodes damaged what has otherwise been a quite sound response
by Campbell to Brown, which has recognised that, although the new prime minister
may have a certain novelty value, in practice little has really changed or will.
Brown was intimately involved in every aspect of the Blair era and it is hard to
believe that he will overturn all that he had said and done for a decade and set
off in some new direction.
And one need not look hard to find the same old Labour Party. The assaults on
civil liberty have been couched in more emollient language, the exchanges with
George W Bush in less enthusiastic language, the direction of foreign policy in
Iraq and elsewhere in more evasive language, and there have been a few populist
moves over casinos and drugs, but that is about it.
With a few exceptions, even the same assorted deadbeats still sit in the cabinet
as sat there under Blair.
Brown’s political selling point is ‘newness’ and, by its nature, that cannot
last very long.
The Lib Dems’ job is to be ready to strike when Brown’s doubtless brief
electoral honeymoon ends, by pointing out how little has changed and that what
people disliked about the Blair administration is still there and not very far
below the surface.
Campbell’s behaviour over the cabinet jobs offer means he is under double
pressure – to perform well against Brown and to perform well enough to crush any
speculation that he wants a deal with him, rather than to deal with him.
Much of the subterranean muttering in the party about Campbell’s performance has
been unfair – with a change of prime minister and a new media-friendly Tory
leader, any Lib Dem leader would have struggled – and sniping Kennedy loyalists
would do well to remember why their hero fell in the first place.
But Campbell does have to start reaching and inspiring voters, giving them an
idea of the sort of country he wants to live in, and a reason why they should
READING THE TEA-LEAVES
The Ealing Southall and Sedgefield by-elections were noteworthy
mainly for the humiliation of the Conservative Party, in particular in the
former seat, where it had imposed as candidate a local celebrity who had only
There was not realistically much chance of the Lib Dems winning either of these
very safe Labour seats, and the second places with increased vote shares were
good results and silenced what would otherwise have been a ‘dump Campbell’ media
campaign had the party come third.
The Lib Dems are notorious for trumpeting by-election victories as being of
near-global significance, when in fact it is usually difficult to deduce much
from them about the state of politics generally.
But for what these two result were worth, they suggested that the Lib Dem vote
has held up better than polls would suggest, that Labour is still vulnerable in
its heartlands and that Cameron’s make-over of the Tories has far to go before
they can break out of their heartlands. All to play for.
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