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Nick Longworth: The song remains the same

Nick Longworth, Head of Broadcasting at Central Office under Iain Duncan Smith, says that Brown is failing to pull off Blair's tricks.

Our front pages were dominated by photos of Baroness Thatcher standing on the steps of Downing Street ahead of talks with Gordon Brown. Has the world gone mad? What is Brown up to? The answer is simple. He is following the Blair song book note for note.

Consider Blair’s first acts on winning the 1997 election. Set up reviews into the most contentious policy areas. Transport, Health and Education. Brown has set up reviews into Casinos and Cannabis. It implies action, but comes with no commitment. It also masks inaction in other areas.

Recruit Conservatives and businessmen to the government. Blair roped in Heseltine and Clarke over China and Europe as well as Chris Patten who flew the flag in Brussels. Brown only managed the lesser lights of Quentin Davis, Patrick Mercer and John Bercow, but the song remains the same.

Brown recruited Digby Jones from the CBI, a pale reflection of Blair’s hiring the highly successful businessmen, Lords Simon and Sainsbury, to ministerial posts.  Appoint respected figures to head action plans. Blair had his Czars, including former Chief Constable Keith Halliwell. Brown has found Matthew Taylor at a loose end.

Play the Liberal Democrats for fools. Blair promised all sorts to soften up the LibDems, only to renege in the light of his landslide. That was a secret deal, only revealed years later. Who knows what has been discussed on all those Westminster to Fife train journeys by Gordon and Ming? Judging by Ming’s capitulation over promises of a Constitutional referendum, something’s going on.

It’s all designed to illustrate the classic New Labour idea of the Big Tent. It worked for Blair, but will Brown’s more clunking efforts have the same impact?

There are reasons to doubt it. First, the names recruited are far more junior than those herded into Blair’s Big Top. Second, by definition, we’ve seen it all before. Third, Brown does not have Blair’s relaxed sales technique. (Whenever I see Brown these days, I think of Garfield: Never trust a smiling cat!) Fourth, Brown’s efforts are rushed and designed to create space for an early – 2007 or early 2008 – election. Fifth, there is little substance to any claims that Brown has brought about change.

The Blair bounce in the 1997 opinion polls was huge. The collective sigh of relief that greeted the end of the Major government led to unprecedented polling scores for Labour (the Guardian’s ICM poll in June 1997 gave Labour a 62% - 23% lead). Brown has benefited from a national sense of release from the chaos of Blair’s last two years, but the poll bounce has been smaller and proven short lived.

Maybe Brown has missed the key element in the Blair song book; Blair. When you’ve seen Ole Blue Eyes sing the tunes, why stick around for the tribute band? As Eric Morecombe put it, he’s playing all the right notes, but in the wrong order.

The lesson for David Cameron is to hold his nerve. He’s the one taking the risks on policy and strategy, while Brown fiddles with PR tactics and spin to imply great changes. 

The voters aren’t stupid. If they want change, then Brown certainly isn’t it.  They have seen New Labour do it all before; lots of talk and very little action. What Cameron is putting together is a Conservative programme they haven’t seen before, moving into ‘no-go’ areas, thinking the unthinkable, facing up to the real problems we face. 

Perversely, the danger for Cameron is that voters go off the idea of change as economic storm clouds gather. Events, dear boy, events.


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