Sunday, February 12, 2006

 

Dunfermline, Lib Dems and Gordon's hopes for the Big One

The repercussions of Dunfermline and West Fife continue to rumble on. Labour just cannot seem to believe it happened: what a loss. Remember how failure in such contests seemed to signal the endgame was nigh for Major? Hence, no doubt, Matthew Parris's headline in yesterday's Times of 'the death rattle of Labour'. Since stepping down from the Commons, this personable and clever journalist, has tried to tip-toe along a supposedly non partisan line but I've always felt that deep down, his heart still belongs to his first political love: Maggie. He hopes the victory will give a boost to Ming, who now seems to trail in the Lib Dem leadership contest. Matthew also adds a comment on Huhne describing him as 'mysteriously and indefinably ghastly'. Why so Matthew? He may be a bit short in the charisma stakes but 'ghastly'? That kind of gratuitous abuse from a socalled leading commentator is just a bit hard to accept.

And those local issues which apparently swung the vote are a bit odd too. The hike in toll bridge charges were not the responsibility of Westminster and Holyrood is controlled by Labour but in coalition with? the Lib dems of course. At root I think Parris is close to it when he suggests voters had just decided they had had enough of New Labour and wanted to sock them in the eye, more particularly Gordon Brown's single remaining one. It must be galling for him to see the constituency in which he has made his home, falling to the enemy, especially as he campaigned so vigorously for the(it would seemfar from outstanding)Labour candidate. Will it harm his chances of promotion to the top job? Almost certainly-The Times even led yesterday with a headline that Labour MPs were furious with 'loser Brown' for his poor leadership. Ming Campbell was certainly right to question the ability of Brown to win the support of the south-eastern Home Counties when he cannot win over the support of his own backyard.

I see the Observer leads today with a story that Brown and Blair will hence-forward rule as a duopoly. I thought this had been the case since 1997 but now, maybe, it's more official. Presumably this is because both men realise the transition is dependent on two crucial things: that Brown is perceived as up to the job by Labour MPs; and that the party maintains at least a semblance of unity as the day for handover approaches. Otherwise we might see the enticing prospect of new hats being thrown into the ring. Charles Clarke has also suggested Brown needs to stake out his own ground if he wishes to win the next election. I'm sure that is true and that we'll hear more and more about his thoughts on public services and, even, foreign policy where his support for the Iraq adventure has probably been inspired more by loyalty and desire for unity than personal conviction.

My reading of the Observer interview with Clarke however, is that is was, in part, a warning to Brown to step up to the plate and give Blair total support during the forthcoming close votes on education and ID cards. Unless they both hang together, they will both hang separately in succession. But with so many rebels lining up on both issues- and there are others too- I wonder how long Labour can maintain the pretence of genuine unity anyway? A cynical view of this agreement- if indeed that is what it is-is to see it as an alliance of convenience: Blair is being maintained in the frame to keep onside the southern English middle classes which it is now feared Brown will not be able to retain.

But are relations any better between the two men? Andrew Rawnsley, in The Observer today says not:

'Scratch beneath the surface and you find seething resentment and distrust. One close observer of the relationship calls it as 'mad as ever'. The prime minister is not convinced his legacy will be safe in the hands of Gordon Brown. The Chancellor does not trust Tony Blair to hand him an inheritance that is not poisoned. Priovate arguments between have blazed between them over the schools reforms. During one recent row, Mr Blair was confronted by Mr Brown raging: 'Why are you trying to destroy the Labour Party?'

Comments:
Good post, though I'm not too sure about Brown being lukewarm on Iraq. Just one point though: Dunfermline and West Fife wasn't the first loss of Labour's time in power by any means - Brent East and Leicester South (the latter of which was regained at the 2005 election) both went to the Lib Dems during the 2001 Parliament in by-elections.
 
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