Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Condemned Britain - 2 Years of Weak Government
Corriere della Sera - May 4th 2008

This was the beginning of the end for Labour Party rule in Britain. In theory, Labour’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, has up to two years to recover from the worst election defeat his party has suffered for 40 years, since he does not have to call a general election until 2010. In practice, no one—even in his own party—truly expects this to happen. The best that anyone currently believes Labour can hope for is to limit the size of their eventual losses in Parliament.

            Incumbent governments in Britain—as in other countries—often do badly in local elections. But for Labour to fall into third place in the overall voting behind both the Conservatives and the small centrist Liberal Democrats, to lose a huge number of council seats and then, in the biggest humiliation of all, to lose the mayoral election in London itself, was a truly crushing punishment. Part of the reason for it is that Labour has been in power for 11 years, since Tony Blair’s first landslide victory in 1997, and after such a long time the electorate was bound to build up grievances against it. But the other reason is Gordon Brown himself.

            After ten years waiting for his chance to become prime minister, sitting in the house next door to Tony Blair while acting as Britain’s finance minister, when Gordon Brown finally became prime minister last summer he seemed to have no real idea how to do the job or what he wants his government to achieve. He spent a lot of time talking about “change” and about avoiding the “spin” and publicity gestures for which Tony Blair was so widely criticised. Yet frequently in the past year he too has shown a strong desire for spin, media manipulation and empty publicity—except that unlike Tony Blair he is rather incompetent at doing it. And he has failed to define what sort of “change” he wants to bring.

            That is why British voters, who can feel their economic fortunes are declining along with the value of their houses, have decided that they know what sort of change they want: they want a change of government. It is not that the Conservatives and their leader David Cameron are enormously popular. It is that they now look like a credible and acceptable alternative government. Labour meanwhile looks increasingly unacceptable and lacking credibility.

            Labour’s only real remaining hope lies in London. The victorious Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, is a former journalist who specialises in appearances on TV comedy quiz shows, who has a habit of insulting people by accident, and who has no managerial experience. Yet he will now have to manage a budget for London of more than £12 billion (15.4 billion euros), right in front of the eyes of all the national media. So if he were to make a mess of it during his first year or two, that could damage the Conservatives’ credibility. But for that precise reason, the national party leadership is likely to supervise him very closely indeed.

            One other solution for Labour might be to change their party leader in the hope that a new, younger prime minister might prove more attractive. David Miliband, the foreign minister, is the most talked-about candidate. Yet unless Gordon Brown decides to resign this is unlikely to happen. A fight to remove him would risk making Labour even more unpopular, and the party’s leadership rules make it difficult to mount a challenge. So the likeliest outcome is that Britain will now have to endure two years under a broken, ineffective, demoralised government.


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