Monday, November 26, 2007

So how bad is it?

Even according to Jackie Ashley, it's very bad. And the reason is now quite straightforward. Gordon Brown has, by a combination of bad luck and his own personal character traits, managed to switch the press narrative from rose-tinted optimism about a new style of leadership to a highly negative assault on his character and his competence. Journalists are essentially lazy people. Stories are much easier to write when they fall within a well-defined narrative. People like to hear tunes they already know. This is why, for Tory leaders from Hague to Cameron, the favourite story was 'the lurch to the right'. We knew the words, we knew the tune: the stories practically wrote themselves.
For Brown the initial story of how a new seriousness, honesty and worthy competence had taken over from tawdry Blairite tinsel was wonderful. Even when he made stylistic mistakes they worked in his favour. Remember that first press conference with the autocue blocking the cameras' view? Then that was presented as evidence of how substance was now winning the day. Today it would be more evidence of how this administration couldn't organise its way out of a paper bag.
The root cause for this switch is fairly obvious - the bungled election that never was. First, it struck at the first part of the Brownite narrative. All the froth over the election was emanating from Number 10, it was a classic example of political positioning without a thought for the higher nimbus of statesmanship. Which would have been fine had not the first plank in the Brownite image been that of the noble statesman standing apart from mere party politics. When the election was finally called off, it was done so in a way that demolished the next two planks. By announcing it in conclave with a single favoured reporter Brown looked 'frit' of being challenged in a hostile environment. At the subsequent wider press conference Brown looked both ridiculous and dishonest by denying that the declining opinion polls had had anything to do with the decision not to go to the country. Petty, scared, dishonest and ridiculous. And incompetent.
So there we had a prototype for a new narrative. Brown's trembling hands at the despatch box, his botched mini-budget, his subdued and stunted cabinet: all these contributed to a new story - the Prime Minister was both trying to do too much, and accomplishing almost nothing - a control freak without a grip. And that was a powerful narrative, because it was easy to tie to current events, and rang somehow truer than the earlier St Gordon line. When the twin scandals of Northern Rock and the HMRC came along, they fit perfectly within this story, and accelerated it dangerously.
Because now there is a tentative flowering of a refinement to this narrative. Black Wednesday, the death of the Major Government, meltdown. There have been a slew of headlines asking 'Is this Black Wednesday for Brown?' Soon the question marks will come off.
Jackie Ashley still sees a sliver of hope:
The Tories' spewing-forth of quick-fix wheezes will tire people soon enough, particularly since they are moving back to the right. When people eventually come to vote, it won't be a referendum on the Labour government, it will be a choice between alternatives.
But, if Saturday's Australian election result was anything to go by, General Elections pretty much are a referendum on the ruling party. If the opposition can do enough to persuade the electorate that it wouldn't be a disaster, as Rudd did and as Cameron is doing, a long-term incumbent is in trouble. BEcause there's one narrative that's potentially even more powerful than Black Wednesday - and that's 'Time for a Change'. Time is not on Brown's side.

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