Matthew Dancona

Byers offers some sensible advice

Byers offers some sensible advice
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The piece by Steve Byers on the McBride affair in today’s Evening Standard is essential reading. First, Byers allows himself to gloat publicly upon the fall of “Mad Dog” – “I made little effort to suppress a smile when I heard about his enforced departure from Downing Street”. This is a huge part of the problem for the PM. So many senior Labour figures have fallen victim to the Brown attack machine over the years that there are few tears around Westminster, and a fair amount of schadenfreude. It is no accident that Charles Clarke, so often on the receiving end of Brownite briefing (and, to be fair, an open opponent of Gordon), was the first to break cover on Saturday and urge McBride’s departure.

Second, Byers quite rightly urges his colleagues to focus on Conservative ideas and policies in the general election campaign, rather than resort to exotic personal smears. This highlights a longstanding split between Blairites and Brownites in their respective analyses of David Cameron. The Blairites – Byers, Milburn, James Purnell, Tessa Jowell and others – acknowledge that the Tory leader is not like his immediate predecessors, that his transformation of the Conservative Party’s image is a deadly threat to New Labour and that his modernisation programme appeals to the very voters that Blair so brilliantly wooed in 1997. Purnell has been particularly impressive in urging his party to attack Cameron over substance (or the lack of it) and to campaign on the basis that the Tory leader is a pragmatist at a time when radical measures are needed. This is spot on. Cameron’s Achilles heel is an intermittent failure to exude sufficient urgency and dynamism.

The Brownites, in contrast, despise the Conservative leader and George Osborne, as “public school bullies” (to use the PM’s phrase), libertines who present themselves as “compassionate conservatives” with the covert intention of dismantling the welfare state and feathering their nests and those of their rich mates. Brown’s own contempt for Cameron and the Shadow Chancellor clouds his judgment. He and his inner circle seem incapable of acknowledging the scale of the threat to Labour’s grip on office and the extent of Cameron’s success in moving the Tories to a position of potential electoral strength. The smears that McBride proposed to spread said more about him and his cronies than they did about the victims: in the Brownites’ imagination, all Cameroons are sexually licentious, decadent, mentally deranged, sick in every sense of the word. Gordon and his friends look at Dave & Co. and see the cast of Cabaret.

Byers is right that “with only a year left to convince the electorate that Labour is worth keeping in office, we must ensure that all our focus and attention is on the implementation of policies that matter to people and not on personal attacks that demean the political process.” But it is almost certainly too late for that.