Saturday, 18 October 2008

Smile, Gordon, and the whole world smiles with you

It’s great to see Gordon Brown looking so cheerful.

Last weekend the Eurozone leaders got together in Paris to talk about the financial crisis, and they invited Gordon to come along for the fun. You might have expected them to look as though they were laying a wreath; instead they were wreathed in smiles. Surprising really, since Gordon isn’t known for spreading an atmosphere of good cheer. In fact, in recent months he’s been more than usually dour. As well he might.

Brown started off with a bang. We’d all got a bit sick of Blair down the years and so Brown got points for just not being him. And things kept going his way. It is said that when Harold MacMillan was Prime Minister a journalist asked him what was most likely to derail a government; ‘Events, dear boy, events’ he replied. Well, sometimes events can be a politician’s best friend. In his first few months, Gordon faced floods, unsuccessful terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow and some foot and mouth released by a government lab. Flood, war and pestilence. He responded with firmness and with calm. He was the nation’s rock. And his stock flourished. Bad times were good times.

This was odd. After all, if you took a bit of a closer look, you might have raised a smidgen of a reservation or two. After ten years in office, you’d think the government might take some responsibility for the lack of adequate flood defences. And the foot and mouth virus got out of a government laboratory. As for the terrorists, well what did Gordon do about them? They screwed up their own mission with no help from him. They couldn’t get their bombs to go off in London and the only casualty in Glasgow was the terrorist himself, dying a lingering death from his self-inflicted burns.

None of that mattered. We weren’t picking nits. We gave him credit for it all.

And then it all went wrong. Northern Rock was the first bank to go. Not so much a rock as just plain rocky. Gordon dithered over how to rescue it. Then it looked like he might call a general election. And he dithered again, finally bottling out, which just made him look frightened of the opposition. His credibility slipped away. His rock, like Northern Rock, turned out to be built on sand.

In September of this year, things hit rock bottom. Or rock bottom so far. The Conservative opposition under David Cameron were 24% ahead. Labour was lower in the polls than before its historic defeat in 1983.

Then came the financial crisis. Bad times again turned out to be good times. They gave him a second lease on life. He bought banks as though they were going out of fashion. He nationalised away as though overnight it had stopped being a taboo Socialistic practice. He acted like a man who knew what LIBOR meant, what ‘liquidity’ was, how a derivative worked. He won praise from unexpected quarters: the latest Nobel economics laureate, Paul Krugman, wrote from across the Atlantic in The Guardian that ‘the British government went to the heart of the problem and moved to address it with stunning speed.’ ‘Stunning speed’? Our Gordon? The ditherer of last autumn? Who’d have thought it?

Our wise and indomitable Gordon has returned. Gordon, you are our rock and on this rock we shall build our bank. The Conservative lead has fallen to 12%, still massive, still enough for a colossal victory, but a lot less than just a few weeks ago. And Gordon has learned to smile.

He comes into his own when the going gets tough. He flourishes on adversity. But not just any adversity. The financial crisis is a bit like the foot and mouth release: he can argue that he’s not really responsible for it. David Cameron’s Conservatives naturally say he is. Of course, the reality is that the light-touch regulation that let the banks rip and led to the present crisis, was introduced by Cameron’s predecessor as Conservative leader, Maggie Thatcher – we’re harvesting what she and Reagan sowed. Blair and Brown were so dominated by her political success they never challenged her thinking. So if we want a political scapegoat, then it would have to be Thatcherism and the baleful influence it has exercised over both main parties for decades. And if you’re going to blame one of the parties, why not start with the Conservatives who gave us Thatcherism rather than Labour who just didn’t dare challenge it?

But Gordon can plausibly argue that politicians aren’t to blame. He points out that the crisis started in the US. That’s great, because everyone likes to blame the Americans. But he also talks about the global nature of the crisis. That’s even better: what’s everyone’s fault in general is no-one’s fault in particular. And he doesn’t have to go there either: this crisis has a ready-made scapegoat. It’s the bankers with their fat-cat bonus cheques. Now there’s a target which has everything. No-one likes bankers, the men in suits who offer you an umbrella when the weather’s fine, and take it away when it starts raining. And we love blaming the bankers for lending to us because otherwise we might have to blame ourselves for borrowing from them. And then where would we be? We’d have to admit we brought the crisis on ourselves. Where’s the satisfaction in that?

So Gordon is laughing all the way to the bank, which he can nationalise with our money, and use as his launching pad for a comeback to make Bill Clinton envious (and Hillary even more so).

Events have conspired to help Gordon out of his hole when he couldn’t help himself. No wonder he’s smiling. And the more broadly he smiles, the more firmly the smirk is wiped off Cameron’s face. Cameron will probably still be elected in 2010, but at least he’s having some anxious moments on the way. Anything that shakes his imperturbable smugness is fine with me. Bring it on and give us more.

Sadly, though, no joy is ever unalloyed. The fly in this ointment was evident in the group photographs from Paris last weekend. If Gordon was cheerful, his host Nicolas Sarkozy was positively gleeful. He’s only had two years as French President and is therefore even less likely to be blamed for the crisis than Gordon. In two years, his most striking achievement has been to marry a pretty woman. Now all he has to do is slipstream behind Gordon and emerge looking like a man of decisiveness who delivers results. And get re-elected.

What a price for France to pay for a glimmer of hope in Britain! Keeping Cameron out of office is a dream. That it might help Sarkozy get back is a nightmare. The very thing that’s putting the spring back in Brown’s step boosts the chances of le petit Nicolas. Just goes to prove that in life you can’t have everything.

In the meantime, Gordon’s smiling. Let’s enjoy the good times while they last.

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