It’s difficult to remember now but just over a year ago, in July 2007, the Independent could write that “The prospect of a snap election was increased by two weekend polls which showed that the change of prime minister has given Labour a “Brown bounce” after the departure of Tony Blair”. Labour had a 7 point lead over the Conservatives in the polls and had just won two by elections.
How things change. At the Conservative party conference that October David Cameron announced plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million. Overnight the Conservatives saw a 6 point Labour lead in the poll turn into a 3 point lead for them.
Gordon Brown, the man who became Prime Minister after a sham of a Labour leadership election, called a sudden halt to talk of an early election, admitting that he’d considered it, but explained that he “wanted to get on with my job of putting my vision of what the future of the country was to the people of the country” before he held it.
His claim that he was not influenced by opinion polls convinced no one. Cameron said “The Prime Minister has shown great weakness and indecision”, and then Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell said “We are talking about loss of nerve”.
A pattern of behaviour soon began to emerge. In October 2004 the new European Union Constitution was signed. The Labour party manifesto for the 2005 election stated clearly “We will put it (the Constitution) to the British people in a referendum”. Then, in early 2006, both France and the Netherlands rejected the Constitution in their referendums and the document died.
But, like a ‘Halloween’ movie, it rose from the dead, this time as the Lisbon Treaty in early 2007. But in August Brown decided that the Lisbon Treaty was, in fact, so different to the Constitution that Labour’s 2005 manifesto commitment to a referendum no longer held. Again, he claimed that opinion polls showing a 2 to 1 majority against the treaty were not a factor.
It was difficult, however, to find anyone who actually agreed with this view of the Lisbon Treaty. From his own party, Austin Mitchell MP said “If it looks like a constitution, if it smells like a constitution, if it reads like a constitution, so far as I’m concerned it’s a constitution”. Valery Giscard D’Estaing, one of the authors of the Constitution, said “The difference between the original Constitution and the present Lisbon Treaty is one of approach, rather than content. The proposals in the original constitutional treaty are practically unchanged”. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said “The good thing is that all the symbolic elements are gone, and that which really matters – the core – is left”. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, stated that “The substance of the constitution is preserved. That is a fact”. The Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern proudly stated that “90 per cent of it is still there…These changes haven’t made any dramatic change to the substance of what was agreed back in 2004.”
The game was given away in a speech at the London School of Economics when Giuliano Amato, another who drew up the Constitution, said “The good thing about not calling it a Constitution is that no one can ask for a referendum on it”. Brown now said that “The proper way to discuss this is in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and I believe Parliament will pass the legislation”. Like the election in October, the promised referendum was cancelled.
And the pattern has continued. In the week before the Labour conference in September a group of MP’s contacted the party’s National Executive Committee asking for nomination forms to be sent out. They cited a clause in the party’s constitution which states that nominations “shall be sought each year”. But after a meeting attended by Brown the NEC refused to send out the ballots citing a ‘convention’ of not doing so while in power. It went on to say it did not want to encourage “internal debates”.
That now makes three elections which this un-elected Prime Minister has run away from; the general election he was considering last autumn, the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and the ballot of his own party membership.
In the future psychologists will probably produce entire theses on Gordon Brown’s almost pathological timidity but for now it seems clear that the man who spent so long plotting in the background for the top job doesn’t function well in the glare of publicity it actually brings. The voters will have to wait until 2010 before they finally get their say.
(Printed in The Caerulean, Issue 12, December 2008)