Martin Bright

Is Anyone Thinking Strategically?

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The MPs' expenses scandal has been a devastating distracttion. It has been an essential process. But it is a distraction all the same. How many times have commentators now said the country is now facing a political crisis to match the economic crisis? This is not the whole story. The economic situation means that people's anger about the venal behaviour of their MPs is intensified to the point of  fury. But the MPs' scandal is just a sideshow to the main problem, which is a serious political vacuum at the top of British politics.

No one is now listening to Gordon Brown any more. His position has become absurd. He can't seriously expect us to believe he will deliver on constitutional reform now when this was supposed to be the keystone of his policy when he took over from Tony Blair two years ago. This is borderline delusional just as it was when he tried to have us believe he had been arguing for reform of the international financial institutions before the collapse of the world economy. The truth is that Brown took ever opportunity to argue for deregulation and chaired the key IMF committee responsible for reform from 1999 without taking any meaningful action.

Brown's failure to clarify his position towards Alistair Darling today is typically opaque. It is as if he has a psychological inability to face reality.  Gordon Brown says the expenses scandal offends his Presbyterian conscience. But when did it start to offend exactly? And why does this offend it so deeply when Iraq, extraordinary rendition and control orders did not? Or perhaps they did and he failed to speak out, which is worse.

Our political cycle could not have reached its present transitional point at a worse time. Purdah, European elections and local elections, summer recess, conference season  mean that, effectively we now face several months of sclerosis followed by a general election campaign held in the most desperate of circumstances.

There are several aspects of the political situation far more dangerous than the expenses scandal (which is essentially good for our democracy because it brings transparency and the possibility of reform). Here are just three:

1.  The operation of Whitehall departments has become increasingly difficult as civil servants calculate whether it is worth implementing government proposals to tackle the recesssion or stalling in anticipation of a change of government.

2. Unemployment is rising and hundreds of thousands of school leavers and graduates are about to enter the labour market. But the measures the government has put in place via the Department of Work and Pensions will only bear fruit in the autumn at the earliest.

3. Even if the new Conservative government (now a near inevitabililty) were to put in place its economic programme immediately, it would only realistically begin to take effect by the beginning of 2011. This is, of course, assuming that they have a programme and that it would be effective. Big assumptions.