The enemies of Gordon Brown are a wonderful company as, God knows, were the enemies of John Major. A government suffers bad shocks, its leader stumbles and attracts a bad press. What government and prime minister do next, over time and rather successfully, may well redeem them with mere voters. But party members in internal opposition at Westminster will have none of it. What follows is suicide bombing – of a genteel and wittering sort.
The Major government, after being hit in September 1992 by an overvalued pound within the ERM, spent the rest of its time – 55 months – overseeing rising inward investment and steadily falling unemployment. But the people who simply knew that Major must go dismissed the distracting economy and went on. They went on indeed until he challenged them, declared a leadership contest – and won it. After which, they resumed going on. It was indeed the economy and they were wonderfully stupid.
They knew by divine revelation not only that Major must go, but that Michael Portillo must succeed him. So it is with Labour now. The Conservative lead falls into single figures, the Liberal Democrats come with mounting credibility into the frame as candidates for a post-election agreement. By-elections stop being hopeless and begin to be won. Cameron, immobile on the banking crisis and with not much idea how the other half lives, metamorphoses into Pigling Bland. Above all, Brown’s handling of the banking crisis is generally applauded for technical grasp and doing the essentials.
At which, the cry goes up: ‘Give us Miliband.’ The object of last week’s Hewitt/Hoon initiative is generally agreed, among people of ill-will, to have been directed at making David Miliband leader. His uneasy silence, the latest of several, was lamented as a sad omission to seize a crown hovering before his anointable hands.
It’s a crude, low, journalistic question, but why? Portillo only made a rather ill-considered speech to conference about the terror potential of the SAS. Miliband, as foreign secretary (not the job it was, but the sort of empty chair that still rates gilt legs), responded to the killing in Gaza a year ago, largely by artillery, of 1200 men, women and children, with another silence.
Yet this rhapsody has been going for years. At the Guardian, Martin Kettle and Polly Toynbee found the new Portillo and have been doing a four-handed John the Baptist act for him since Northern Rock was solvent. The theme has been somewhere between the Dunciad and Iolanthe: ‘He comes! he comes! the sable throne behold’ or ‘Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!’
In truth, the man is a beautifully modulated void. Moderately young, pleasant spoken, nicely null, he has worked in politics, from outer office to the FO, all his graceful, inconsiderable life. He lacks the zing and flare of Portillo. Yet no metropolitan conversation is complete without him. This is a political Enoch Soames. Come to think of it, this Labour Party may need Enoch Soames.