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Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A story of inspired government, 1997-2007

Page 17 of 17
Selling Cameron
David Cameron himself might have been a hard sell. His being posh is a mixed blessing, though it may be much more of a blessing than is often supposed. His looking like a rather smug squire out of a Gainsborough portrait doesn't seem to go against him. But Cameron was of course required to prove that the Tories were capable of being nice: he has surely achieved that, whatever bland superiority some of us detect in his face.

David Cameron may or may not deploy the disability of his child as a deliberate political advantage. Indeed, it is a sign of the times that we assume he may have done so. And it is a sign of the times - in a way a good sign - that such matters are not kept discreetly out of the public gaze. It would be tasteless to speculate on Cameron's motives. All the same, we can be fairly sure that it has played well for him that he has been able (quite frequently) to make it clear that he is a hands-on parent with every reason to care about the National Health Service on which he proudly and also humbly relies.

Gordon Brown puts on a friendly face
It is interesting that Cameron's biggest political problem is to seem kindly and real and ordinary. It is a problem very like that faced by Gordon Brown, who is widely presumed to be about to succeed Blair and quite possibly precede Cameron. Brown's marriage and fatherhood - and perhaps especially the death of an infant child and the infirmity of another of his children - have all brought some public sympathy for and empathy with a man who was more admired for his policies (if at all) than for his personality. He has contrived, indeed, to be remarkably unpopular, with some of the most telling criticisms coming from within his own party. His own team and supporters seem to hope that Brown can prove himself popular by delivering real policy rather than spin, in short by being substantial. Of course, he has the advantage that he will come to power, if he does, on the back of Blair's electability. But he may go on to win elections in a way unique to him: namely as a man who was able to prove himself able in office without having first having to prove himself popular at the polls. It is even possible that power will become him: he has hated having to lurk behind the arras and it is quite possible that he will become much more user-friendly when his lifetime dream is realised. He is, for instance, already capable of a largely unnoticed wittiness in the Commons, and that may develop. We'll see.

It surely possible that Brown will be as irritating a premier as he has been a Chancellor. It may be a matter of taste and little more, but I find Brown's awesome seriousness, his humourless assumption of our assumption of his rectitude, wearying. He has been widely billed as being a man of massive intellect, a thing we have yet to have demonstrated by anything he has told us or been seen to do. His media interviews have not been very interactive. He has been notorious for double-accounting and double and triple announcing his taxation wheezes.

Can we have our politics back, please?
All of that one might call the ordinary business of politics. But Brown has been into a fair amount of Messiah Politics himself. He has declared himself passionate on world poverty and climate change, and looked contrived as he proved one of these points on walk-about in Africa. Cameron has the advantage over both Blair and Brown that he looks good when he seeks to look natural. He even pulled off a very silly stunt with huskies in Norway.

Cameron and Brown seem to understand that it is required to develop at least that part of Messiah Politics that parades its conscience on at least some iconic issues.

Is it possible that either man will share power? Both men seem to understand that Blair has governed very badly. There has been a good deal of leaking from the Brown camp to suggest that he wants to abandon Sofa Government, and intends to have a stronger Cabinet of people chosen for their talent rather than their biddability. [[14]] He has also, more ambiguously, made a good deal of his determination to rely on Whitehall officials more and on politically-appointed advisers rather less. Thus, he has let it be known, there will be no repeat of the constitutionally-dubious empowerment of appointees, and no repeat of the special measure by which Blair gave some of his outsiders control over civil servants. Actually, though, Brown may be speaking with forked tongue. The civil servants on whom he seems to want to rely are all people who have come into the Chancellor's orbit over the past ten years. They may have become less independent-minded than the outsider might like.

Lord Turnbull, last-but-one Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, made some outspoken remarks to the Financial Times in March 2007. [Link] He spoke of Brown's "Stalinist ruthlessness" and how Brown belittled his Cabinet colleagues with "more or less complete contempt". He is the latest of an unbroken succession of three former holders of the post to discuss what one of them called New Labour's "coup" against "the processes of government". Turnbull's remarks were novel in their lack of coding and their severity, and in being directed specifically at Brown's management of the Treasury and its maw, which Turnbull knew well since he had also been the Permanent Secretary there. We will need to watch carefully to see whether, under the guise of seeking Whitehall impartiality and steadiness, Gordon Brown hasn't actually committed the greater sin of politicising the civil service.

What has David Cameron made of all this? In Spring 2007, we know rather little. But if his conference speech of October 2006 is anything to go by, we may be in luck. He said he was determined to be a Prime Minister of the old school, with a strong Cabinet and an end to the presidential style of government. There are some signs that he means what he says. There is of course a Cameron spin machine at work, and he is being "presented" in the Blair-ite way, but he has also initiated a series of policy reviews under people who have real strength in their own right. It may be possible to bury the output of people like John Gummer (environment review), Stephen Dorrell (health service review) and Ian Duncan-Smith (with his social justice work), but it is more likely that they can put down markers which he will have to live with. This is the antithesis of Blair's Messiah Politics, in which he alone had the vision, the power, and the glory.

Shall we put it like this? Messiah Politics was too lofty, too inspired, too manipulative and too inefficient to be sustainable politics. But it deployed the media brilliantly. It understood the phoney charisma which now works. And it understood the cheap sentimentality of the worst of our times. We may well see its offspring as politicians increasingly reach for the ersatz and the tacky. So thank you, Mr Blair.


[1] Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Yo, Blair!, Politico's, 2007
[2] Lance Price, The Spin Doctor's Diary, Hodder & Stoughton, 2005
[3] Peter Stothard, 30 Days: A month at the heart of Blair's War, HarperCollins, 2003
[4] Richard North Patterson, No Safe Place, Ballantine, 1998
[5] [A web search of "announcement is merely the intention" will take you there.]
[6] Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty: How we can make it happen in our lifetime, Penguin, 2005. RDN reviewed this book for www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk
[7] Rachel Sylvester and Andrew Sparrow, Vast majority thinks Africa aid is wasted, poll shows, Daily Telegraph, 4 June 2005.
[8] RDN has material on these themes at www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk.
[9] The Great Global Warming Swindle, WAGtv for Channel 4, 8 March, 2007. RDN reviewed this work at www.socialaffairsunit.org.uk
[10] Peter Riddell, The Unfulfilled Prime Minister, Politico's, 2005, p135
[11] Peter Riddell, The Unfulfilled Prime Minister, Politico's, 2005, p140
[12] Nick Cohen, What's Left?, Fourth Estate, 2007
[13] Peter Riddell, Hug Them Close: Blair, Clinton, Bush and the "Special Relationship", Politico's, 2003.
[14] Patrick Hennessy, "The year of our Gord 2007", The Sunday Telegraph, 31 December, 2006

 

Mr Blair's Messiah Politics:
A story of inspired government, 1997-2007
by Richard D North

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