Monday, May 14, 2007


Do Political Leopards Ever Change Their Spots?

This is a perennial question in democratic politics and is ultimately unanswerable but let's have a brief historical stab it it anyway. It could be argued that Robert Peel and Winston Churchill both succeeded in doing so: Peel by changing his mind on the Corn Laws and Winston when he swapped, first from Tory to Liberal and then back again, causing many breasts to beat faster but without anyone really making the label of 'traitor' stick.

Neill Kinnock and Michael Portillo both U turned their political standpoints- the Welshman from left-winger to centrist and the former Ribena advert boy from red in tooth and SAS praising claw Thatcherite to touchy-feely compassionate Conservative. But neither of them really succeeded in convincing enough voters, whether in the wider electorate or the Tory Party, that their conversions were genuine. Result? they have both ended up respectably retired from front line politics but both irrevocably daubed with the title: 'nearly men'.

John Reid used to be a tough Glaswegian communist and David Cameron, a right-wing Tory (if Peter Hitchens is to be believed) of unreconstructed Maggie worshipping sincerity. Reid's political history happened so long ago that nobody really cares about it now and the public have happily allowed his spots to change. 'Dave', however, is a slightly different matter. His conversion occurred at a time and at a speed that unerringly summons the accusation of 'opportunism'. To date the spots change has been executed with such great subtlety that voters have not really noticed, but the nature of the silent transformation may yet come back to bite him.

Which leaves us with Gordon Brown. It seems to me he has two sets of spots to change; policy and personality ones. On the policy front he needs to adjust his stance to appeal both to Old Labour core support and to those lost millions of Middle England voters. Quite a big 'ask' I'd say but not as difficult as changing perceptions of his personality. Jackie Ashley today indicates just how hard it will be by asking if he can:

drop the controlling temper and the compulsive fiddling? Can he start to speak plainly, to listen and to apologise? The signs are good, though there is a way to go till he speaks totally fluent human.

Changing policies is always a possibility, given sufficient time and political skill; changing the essence of one's nature, now that is something else altogether, and I'm fascinated to watch Brown's attempt to achieve the near impossible.

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