Alex Massie

Hats off to Gordon Brown?

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Commenting on this post, a reader asks:

What does this do to Gordon Brown's political future?  He sure looks like a world leader as the rest of the world falls in behind his bailout plan. Neither McCain nor Obama seem to have a clue what to do for the financial crisis, so I'm wondering if I should write in Brown's name for President in here in the U.S.  Your opinion?

This is a good question, not least because it permits one to escape from economics. My answer hunch, I guess, is that this will improve Gordon's position in the short-term but that he is still extremely vulnerable in the long-term. Yes, he's showing action right now. Yes, there are plenty of people who will like this renewed stamp of leadership. And yes, some voters will believe - or believe right now - that this is a "global problem" sent our way by the Americans and that, consequently, none of it is Brown's fault or responsibility. Certainly, Gordon is enjoying himself (a natural reaction to crisis, but one some voters may find somewhat unseemly).

So, it's not absurd to think that, unlikely as it seemed just a couple of weeks ago, Labour could win the Glenrothes by-election next month. The financial crisis has, for the moment at least, put Alex Salmond in the shade. Brown is the Man with the Action Plan. If the polls show the public responding favourably to these latest developments then I suspect Brown may decide it is worth his while to campaign in Glenrothes personally.

Glenrothes - the neighbouring constituency to Brown's own seat remember and which has been Labour for more than 50 years - has become more, not less important. Or rather, its importance has shifted. A month ago, a crushing defeat for Labour would have reopened questions about the leadership. The parliamentary party would have been in an especially febrile mood. Those waters are calm now. Instead, Glenrothes is going to be a mini-referendum on Brown's recovery. If Labour win - as, again, they are better placed to do so now - then Brown can claim to have turned the corner. He will use the by-election as proof that he was right and, you know, this is no time for a novice and all the rest of it. He will win that crucial commodity: time.

But if Labour lose then Labour will be worse off than ever. There won't be much talk of dropping the pilot, if only because no-one else is going to want to be commanding the ship when it goes down. Labour are stuck with Brown. And if the SNP take Glenrothes then the "Brown Bounce" we see this week will seem more like a "dead cat" bounce than anything else. In other words, it will be just a temporary reprieve.

Sure, the opinion polls gave Labour a small boost at the weekend. Sure, too, Brown has a small edge - right now - on economic matters. Some voters respond well to action, almost irregardless of the particulars of the actions themselves. (For what it's worth, I think Brown and Darling have probably, as best I can tell, done OK this weekend). But, look, the Tories retain a ten point lead. Who would you really rather be? It's like the old Irish saw about asking for directions: "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here." For directions, read elections. 

The next election will be fought in 2010. There's every chance that Britain will still be stuck in a rather nasty recession by that time. Hardly propitious circumstances for a party seeking a fourth term. As I say, it's possible that Brown will be fine in the short-term, but I rather agree with Iain Dale and think that in the longer-term voters will blame the party on duty, not think that the other mob would have performed even worse. Do the Conservatives terrify the public? Not anymore. Time for a change is a strong argument in itself; it will be even stronger, I hazard, in an election held during an economic downturn. 

Labour may end up doing better than the polls would currently predict, but that's not quite the same as winning the next election. The longer-term fundamentals remain firmly in the Tories favour. At least, that's my guess right now.

The one thing that might make a difference would be if the public rejects economic liberalism in its entireity. Even then, however, Brown would have to explain away his admiration for Alan Greenspan. And the argument "I believed in the same things the opposition did, just later and not quite as completely" doesn't quite seem a game-changer to me.

UPDATE: Doctorvee was writing about Glenrothes a couple of days ago. And, in answer to commenter NDM, if voters do think Brown "saved the global economy" then matters may change. But right now I think most punters would struggle to take that notion seriously. That too may change of course.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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