Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Depending on who you believe, Gordon Brown is now in his fifth or is it his sixth worst week as Prime Minister. It doesn’t matter who is right: what is so damaging to the Labour government is that in the eyes of the news media the Brown Premiership is now in crisis mode, in the same kind of downward spiral which ended with John Major’s humiliating defeat a decade ago.

However hard ministers might try to regain the initiative, most journalists are now judging events simply on the basis of whether or not they constitute yet another disaster for an accident-prone administration.

Major was depicted by the cartoonists as a wimp who tucked his shirt into his underpants just as Brown is now being ridiculed un-mercilessly and has progressed from a brooding bear-like grump into a bumbling and incompetent Mr Bean.

After the debacle of Northern Rock, the loss of half the country’s bank records, his savaging by former defence chiefs over Labour’s failure to do more to support British troops and now the prospect of becoming only the second Prime Minister in history to be questioned by the Metropolitan Police, Brown has a mountain to climb if he is ever to repair his battered reputation.

Luckily for Labour many of the similarities between the agony of the Major years and Brown’s rapid descent into comparable chaos and confusion are still only surface deep.

While Britain’s support for the American-led attack on Iraq remains a divisive issue among Labour Mps, it is nothing like as debilitating as the fault line over Europe which split the Conservative Party and created a tribe of Eurosceptic diehards who still pose a potential threat to any Tory leader.

More importantly Brown has not become a target as Major did for the pent up hatred of his predecessor. Whereas much of Tony Blair’s legacy except for Iraq is greeted with indifference, Major had to cope with the deep-seated anger of those who lost out during the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher tamed the trade unions, demolished the nationalised industries and allowed unemployment to rise to unprecedented levels.

Again, whereas Blair’s final demise after years of feuding with Brown was not the upbeat departure he would have preferred, it was nothing like the wounding knife in the back which ousted Thatcher from Downing Street after she had been deserted by her erstwhile cabinet colleagues.

So great was their sense of loss that aggrieved Thatcherites were only too willing to do down her successor whatever the personal cost to Major and inevitable damage to the Conservatives’ electoral prospects.

To his credit Blair has kept well out of British politics in recent months and while ex Blairites occasionally let forth they are nothing like as vocal or passionate as those who still hanker for a Tory leader with strong, right-wing convictions.

Nonetheless there are now some telling examples of how Brown is becoming a no-hoper like Major, apparently doomed to electoral defeat.

While there has been no suggestion so far of there being any personal gain for Labour Mps in the unfolding saga of the improperly declared political donations, the unlawful use of intermediaries does have many parallels with what became known in the 1990s as the "cash for questions" scandal.

Allegations about secret payments to Conservative Mps in return for political favours ensured that the word "sleaze" was hung as firmly around the neck of Major as the word "spin" was subsequently pinned to Blair.

After all the murky revelations over Blair’s role in "cash for peerages" and the request before the 2005 election for loans rather donations in order to get round the law, it is hard to fathom how Brown could have been kept in the dark about Labour’s hole-in-the-corner arrangement for taking David Abrahams’ cash.

Unlike Major, Brown does have sufficient time to clean up the financing of political parties but new procedures will need to be in place well before the next election if Labour is not going to be handicapped by underhand procedures which in many respects were just as sleazy as those of the 1990s.

Brown’s guardianship of Britain’s finances during his decade as Chancellor is also looking decidedly less bankable in view of falling house prices and gloomy predictions about a deepening economic downturn.

Given the difficulties on the home front, I think there are probably more worrying parallels with the final years of Jim Callaghan’s government than John Major’s.

Callaghan, like Brown, funked an autumn election in 1978 and then in the face of growing pressure tried to appease the trade unions with public sector pay increases which proved insufficient and triggered what became known as the "winter of discontent".

After years of uncontrolled strike action Margaret Thatcher promised to tame the unions and sort out the economy. Her victory in 1979 heralded a decade of unprecedented change.

David Cameron is no Thatcher and the Conservative Party of today is nothing like the disciplined, election-winning machine which she established. So Brown still has time to marshal the Labour Party for a fight back in 2009 or more likely in 2010 but the omens are not promising.

Callaghan succeeded a far more popular Harold Wilson; Major was always in Thatcher’s shadow; and Brown must wish he had a little of Blair’s stardust and could match his predecessor’s fancy footwork in dodging in the political flak at Westminster.

(This article was first published in the Yorkshire Post 4.12.2007)