Brown loses it in The Mail
The prime minister’s media groupies are now turning on him like lovers scorned. Hate to say we told you so...
The UK government is in crisis, accused of betraying, endangering and ripping off the public. Just like old times again, ain’t it?
But this time the beleaguered New Labour government has done something more than misplacing the personal and banking details of 15m UK families on two discs. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has lost the CD-thin support of the media and the public that cheered him into Downing Street a few months ago amid optimistic talk of new beginnings and dramatic change, even a ‘revolution’. His share price has collapsed almost as dramatically as that of Northern Rock, the troubled mortgage lender. Brown has gone from boom to bust in a matter of weeks.
Now there is talk of Brown sinking into dark moods, bullying everybody, barricading himself within his inner circle, while younger guns like Ed Balls and David Miliband already begin jostling for position to succeed him as leader. There have even been the first signs of a Blair-lash, as some serious observers start to appear almost nostalgic for the days of Tony. One anonymous Brownite cabinet minister has reportedly been wondering aloud whether Labour isn’t starting to look like the Tories in the doomed last days of John Major’s government, veering from one crisis to another.
Many are throwing their hands up and asking how it has all gone wrong so quickly. The real question however ought to be not how could Brown have fallen so low, but how could the media have built him up so high in the first place? It is a sign of the way that politics has become increasingly like a reality television show, devoid of real meaning or substance, where one ‘contestant’ can be turned into a star overnight and just as easily destroyed the following week, regardless of events in the real world.
Of course it is shocking to learn that those lost discs of sensitive information could be treated in such a cavalier fashion – although anybody who has had to deal with the tax and benefits bureaucracy might be inclined simply to shrug in the knowledge that they will have been dumped in the trash somewhere, or perhaps carefully placed in a recycling bin. But it should hardly be surprising to learn that, under the Brown government, the state machine is just as badly out of control and adrift as under its predecessor, only without the panache of Blair to paper over the cracks.
As we pointed out at the time on spiked, it was only the incredible outburst of Brown-nosing in the media earlier this year which produced such an impression of change (See What’s behind all this Brown-nosing?, by Mick Hume.). It was only the bitterness of the reaction against Blair that made many appear willing to accept Brown as a new man with his own ideas, ignoring the fact that he had been at the centre of the exhausted New Labour project for more than a decade. Even the arch-Tory Daily Mail became an enthusiastic convert to the Brown stuff, not least because the new prime minister seemed to be borrowing many of his announcements from the Mail’s editorial columns
Now the commentators are turning on Brown already, writing outraged columns about how, shock horror, he doesn’t really have a ‘government of all the talents’, but has turned out to be a self-centred cliquish obsessive who alternately bullies or ignores his ministers. Yet that should surely come as little surprise to anybody who has followed his career over the previous 10 years, secreted away inside the Treasury conspiring and gnashing his teeth.
For students of British politics who have not been swayed by the media cheer-leading of the past few months, the government’s latest problems look like classic New Labour crises. Brown spent the summer posturing and spinning over his supposedly resolute leadership in response to some floods, failed car bombings and local outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. His new fan club lapped it up.
Then suddenly he was faced with a real crisis as the US sub-prime mortgage sector sparked a credit crunch and Northern Rock went into meltdown. And Brown immediately reverted to type, dodging responsibility and showing ineffectual leadership. Of course the problems in the financial markets themselves were beyond the reach of Brown and his shadow, chancellor Alastair Darling. But the mixed and indecisive signals they gave made matters far worse: first trying to look tough by refusing to guarantee all deposits, then panicking, flip-flopping and offering Northern Rock a blank cheque when thousands of investors sensibly started queuing to withdraw their savings. Now they have had to admit that they do not know how much it will all cost. So much for the ‘iron chancellor’, Prudence Brown.
Then came the bizarre affair of the mislaid child benefit discs containing details of almost every family in the country. Of course accidents can always happen. But this mix-up might be thought to have the fingerprints of New Labour all over it. For example, the tax and benefits system is now run by an inefficiently and unnecessarily-merged super-department of government, another over-reaching bureaucracy that invests billions in keeping tabs on everybody, yet still sends data on CDs in the post.
Moreover, the initial reaction to the loss was a pure New Labour exercise in trying to cover backs, confusion, and fear of what the media might say. Thus the police were apparently not informed until five days after the prime minister and chancellor knew, and the banks – who would have to deal with any resulting fraud – for several more days after that. The Conservatives tried to make a rhetorical point about how Brown and his government should stop worrying about their lack of vision and deliver some basic competence. But the distinction is not as clear-cut as that. It is the lack of any cohering sense of common purpose in the upper echelons of government and the state machine that means the response to crises is shaped by a culture of back-covering, finger-pointing and general flailing about. Last time around the hysteria struck the Home Office, this time it is the Treasury.
The recent problems have also confirmed another characteristic of New Labour (and indeed British politics) that should have been evident to anybody not star-struck by the dull glow of Brown’s dubious charisma. That is, the steadily declining calibre of the people in leadership positions. The ineffectual Darling is only the latest (and won’t be the last) to be exposed in the spotlight, now that they can no longer shelter behind Blair’s dazzling image-management. Reports that Brown wanted to give airhead daytime TV presenters a role in government suggest how low are his new ideas of what leadership might mean.
The Mail and the rest of the media Brown-nosers have now turned on his government with the fury of lovers scorned. Meanwhile for many of the fickle star-gazers, David Cameron has become this month’s favoured reality TV contestant, without having said or done anything of interest. A discussion that veers between naïve cheer-leading and knee-jerk condemnation, however, can only reinforce public cynicism about all things political.
It is time to end these games of ‘who’s-in-and-out’ and take a more serious look at the bigger problems – at an empty political system devoid of principles or leadership, a restlessly interfering yet directionless state bureaucracy, a shallow media-dominated public debate, an economy going nowhere. Brown, New Labour and the rest of the political class have lost their grip on rather more than a couple of CDs, and Northern Rock is far from the only near-bankrupt institution making an exhibition of itself today.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large at spiked.
Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is unfit to be prime minister. Mick Hume wondered what an election, if it were called, would be about anyway, and said ‘Bottler Brown’ is the PM British politics deserves. David Chandler asked why Gordon Brown hates politics. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.