The Spectator

It’s not good out there

It's not good out there
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It's a bit rough out there. Every day brings a flood and dry cleaning bills. Anglican bishops taking time off from gay-obsessions tell us the rain is all our fault and God's judgement on our careless ways. For which relief much thanks go to Bishop Jones of Liverpool (and the Mersey Delta). But it was an ostentatiously Anglican poet, T S Eliot, who told us in the Four Quartets that the river was a 'strong brown god'-one of those implacable and unappeasable forces which just recur in cyclical fashion. Shit happens-and moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. Usually it arrives in Bangladesh rather than Britain- but it's all a good reminder of a common vulnerability to nature. 17th century diarists are full of laments about wet summers and ruined harvests. Why shouldn't we have a dose of the same?

Meanwhile, smokers seeking solace can no longer go to pubs to escape the rain and light up. Crouching in doorways and puffing in the rain we speculate on just how many NHS-trained doctors might be planning to blow us up this summer. After Glasgow airport and Cockspur Street the management of primary health care trusts will never be the same again. Added to which-a bunch of Oxford PPE graduates baptised by immersion in Harvard's school of government now seem to be running the country. We had got used to Tony's foolish ways and all that theatricality as the jeune premier of the political stage matured into the pomp of middle aged emoting. But now a terrible seriousness is born. And the Tories have a problem called Gordon.

It's idle to pretend that the first week of this premiership have been anything other than terrific so far as Gordon Brown is concerned. He's learnt from the Master and managed by Blairite means of presentation to create the illusion of a new government refreshed in purpose and learning all the time while listening (unlike you know who). And a Cabinet which contains the two Milibands, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and a dusted down Ruth Kelly really does denote a different tone. This is all very administrative-minded stuff, policy-focused, and wonk-ish to a degree which is positively post-graduate. It's all a bit as if R H S Crossman had returned to cabinet government.

The Tory front bench has nothing like this intellectual strength. This is a party which-seventeen years after the death of Thatcherism-is still looking for its big idea. Possibly it doesn't need a big idea-and when David Cameron talks about 'social responsibility' as his definitional credo you can hear all available socio-economic interest groups switching channels. The only big idea available for Tories in recent years-Euro-scepticism-both divided them and made them look cantankerously constitutional. 

It may not however matter too much that some members of the newly reshuffled Tory front bench-and a good deal of the parliamentary party-are fairly stupid. It was rancour-not dimness-which did for them in the past. Besides which -intelligence is an over-rated commodity in politics if only because intellectuals over-emphasise the role of reason and planning in human affairs. Plans-just like flood defences-are always threatened by the unpredictable tide of events. And Dick Crossman -along with so many other members of the Labour cabinets in the 60's and 70's-was a very good example of how stupid intellectuals can be when they turn to politics.

Gordon Brown's tediously advertised bookishness will work fine for just as long as the economy holds out. But it's striking how often British prime ministers are undone by failure in the very area which was supposed to be their area of special strength-and which earned them their promotion. Eden and foreign policy, Callaghan and the trades unions, Major and internal party management: all were broken by their special subject. David Cameron's best chance must lie in the same thing happening in the case of Gordon Brown and economic policy as interest rates -and inflationary pressures-rise to resume their challenge to Labour.