Wednesday, 5 December 2007

It's Another Case of Blair versus Brown

People say politics these days is all style over substance. After a decade of Smiler's spin, followed by Blair-lite Cameron, it seemed that what we all craved, what we all longed for, was a little more content. Apparently we overestimated ourselves. But is that such a bad thing?

First Ming the Merciless, the Liberal Democrats elder statesman, went the way of the Dodo because he was deemed too old and uncharismatic to revive the Party's flagging fortunes. Now Brown the Steady, torchbearer of reason and responsible policy making back in the dark days of Tony's wars of religion, has become something of a national liability.

The media cites incompetence. But I'm hard pressed to see how the mistakes of an Inland Revenue underling in Newcastle, or under-funded political rivals, can really be blamed on the Prime Minister, even if he had known about them at some level. And they certainly needn't have spiralled so far out of control.

Gordon Brown's problem is not so much what happened but how he handled it. Tony Blair managed to cause civil war in Iraq, sell honours for cash, and make parents pay thousands for their child's education and he still survived.

Politicians make a hash of things all the time. That comes as no surprise. All the public expects from them, I suppose, is a modicum of sleek professionalism when it comes to handling difficulties. Some convincing spin to lend style, polish, and coherence to even the most preposterous of situations.

Why? Because no one likes to watch leaders losing control of a situation, however much they might enjoy backbiting. Indeed we almost admire it, a politician who can rise to the challenge, shrug off his opponents with a pointed quip, and stare down adversity - even when he is in the wrong.

"Making chaos out of order" as Vince Cable MP described it the other day, is the worst of politics' cardinal sins precisely because it reinforces the public's worst fear that life, the world, and everything, is infinitely more chaotic and unmanageable than we dare admit.

We expect politicians to reassure us with at least the semblance of order, in the same way that we expect political ideologies and manifestos to give us the semblance of choice and control. When either becomes unstuck we are faced with the fact that politics is largely a matter of amateur guesswork rather than the science of government.

So when it comes to the contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne I know who I' m going to vote for. Up until yesterday, when I attended the hustings in the European Parliament, I was convinced Huhne was my man. He has ideas, writes well, comes to the point. An original thinker, a new departure, a man capable of reconciling social liberals and economic liberals? So it looked on paper.

In the flesh however, I was struck by the feeling there was no real contest. While Huhne is clearly capable of providing the Party with the intellectual thrust it needs he doesn't seem to have the empathy, engagement, or conviction to sell his ideas - and make others believe in them. It was like he had simply memorised his briefing and trotted it out, with a couple of compulsory 'human interest' stories thrown in, when he was in fact the leading force behind much new Party policy.

Nick Clegg, by contrast, whose Leadership campaign stole most of its ideas from other Members, and who doesn't seem to be at the cutting edge of Lib Dem policy making (if such a thing exists) came across as ideologically involved and believable. He had heart, charisma, humour in abundance. And by combining these with some intelligent, well-balanced responses, managed to win over an audience which had previously seemed quite evenly split.

That is not to say either would be a bad choice. They are both very capable people who, in my opinion, stand head and shoulders above the Iron Chancellor and Chameleon Cameron. But seeing them together in a room reminded me of nothing less than Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. And for all his faults, Blair's decade-long premiership gives me hope that Clegg, rather than Huhne, has the capacity to lift my party from the doldrums and restore its credibility amongst the wider public, just as Blair did Labour's. That's why he'll now get my vote for Leader.


Peter said...

Hi C,

I think you're right about why Blair fared better than Brown. What did David Milliband say? - "after six months of Brown, everybody will be wishing for Tony Blair to come back" - or something...

I reckon if there's a national emergency in a few years time, Blair will return to put everything right again.

You're right about Clegg over Huhne as well - Nick Clegg comes over much better. Neither would be a disaster though, and whichever wins, they need to make sure they get Vince Cable to write their jokes.

Consider This said...

David Milliband said that? No wonder Gordon Brown is sending him off to Darfur for a 'fact finding mission'...

And I agree. That Mr Bean line was a classic. The Lib Dems are indeed in a lucky position to have such promising leadership material.

I'm hard pressed to see similar levels of talent on the Tory or Labour front benches just now.