| Staged unity
I returned to London his week from India, where the budget was under the microscope; albeit somewhat overshadowed by issues of governance in Bihar and Goa. Did Mr Chidambaram hold the balance between promises to poor electors and to leftist partners, at the same time recognizing the needs of a bullish business sector on the verge of an economic roll' From an outsider's view, the finance minister seemed to steer a successful path, acceptable to the rural vote, the coalition and business reformers, leaving aside only the issue of shortfall in fiscal deficit targets and the usual questions over implementation of new measures. This was the second post-election budget and no longer touched with the rose tinting of the Congress victory. It was, rather, under the spotlight of real politics and hard economics, both nationally and internationally.
In London, I arrived to weekend press anticipation and second-guessing of the details of the pre-election budget of the chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown. The stealth campaigning for a prospective election on May 5 has been snowballing since the New Year, and has resulted in the endless party-political wrangling, made and broken promises and personal mud-slinging that have left the British electorate with little more than an intense lack of interest in the whole political process. Parliament has been reduced in the public perception, under an autocratic and overwhelming Labour majority government, to little more than a legislative rubber-stamp on policies pre-determined inside the walls of 10, Downing Street.
While the United Kingdom promotes or enforces democracy and democratic principles in Africa and Iraq, domestic voters believe that their voice in this parliamentary democracy has ceased to be heard. Gordon Brown's budget on March 16 was, on the face of it, for stability, as he had advertised, neither offering extravagant promises nor ignoring matters of pressing importance. It seems unlikely, however, that in his promises of increases in a raft of benefits and public budgets over the next several years the chancellor will galvanize a politically apathetic population. We are all bored of this election long before the official start of the campaign. In truth, electioneering seems not to have stopped since the last election, in spite of the apparent burial of the main opposition, the Conservative Party, under its own in-fighting and lack of leadership.
Recently, we have been treated to a fair dose of government in-fighting too. The spectacle of Chancellor Brown and the prime minister, Tony Blair, behaving like rival divas is unedifying. Carefully staged photo calls of unity in improbable settings like Old Billingsgate Fish Market fail to persuade us that the political and personal rifts between the two most powerful men in the country can be papered over. The cynicism overshadowing budget taxation promises has not stopped the chancellor floating to the top of the popularity polls in the last few days. By focusing on the economy, he has remained largely untainted by the issues around the Iraq War and of parliament and governance at home. His recent call for greater aid to Africa and his visit there have raised his profile internationally and favourably softened his image at home. Brown's energy and power have become palpable and joint press calls invite disagreeable comparisons for an exhausted looking prime minister.
If there is to be a post-election leadership battle in the Labour Party, the chancellor has little competition. The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, is the voice of 'Old' Labour, his title a sop to traditional Labour voters. The role of the deputy prime minister is not a unique appointment, but neither is it standard. The first man to hold the post was Clement Attlee in the government of national unity during World War II. Prescott is seen as an unreconstructed trade-union dinosaur with the potential to resort to his fists if all else fails and with an excessive enjoyment of the trappings of power.
He is not a likely leadership contender, but would be an important ally for another. The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, seems to be going quietly about his work, largely on pushing forward the Iraq peace. It would be encouraging to think that he might remain in situ in the next government. After long gone days as a hard-left student activist, his image is now of a clever and thoughtful man, prepared to admit to mistakes and omissions but genuinely working to improve international partnerships and policies.
The former home secretary, David Blunkett ' who has long since whipped off the velvet glove of blindness and cuddly guide dogs, to become the government's iron man ' fell prey to the complications of his love-life at the end of 2004. He was succeeded by the education secretary, Charles Clarke. Clarke, a career politician known as 'Blair's Bruiser' is suffering a few bruises himself after the debacle of the new prevention of terrorism bill's rough ride through parliament last week. The toning down of the government's rushed attempt to gain extraordinary powers for detaining suspected terrorists left this big man looking somewhat deflated. He has returned this week, after a brief recuperation, to set about revoking his predecessor's legislation decriminalizing cannabis.
The anti-terrorism bill showed the increasingly exposed position of the prime minister. Implacable opposition from opposition parties and the House of Lords forced him to agree to ongoing reviews of the law. His attack on the opposition leader, Michael Howard, for putting politics and opportunism before national security is unsurprising, but looked like the attack of a cornered man. The ongoing inter-party dialogue of insults fails to improve the overall profile of politicians. The regrettable fact is that the electorate sees itself in general and questions of its security in this particular case, coming second to the egos of its leaders.
Some sections of the left and right take the view that Blair hoped for a defeat of the anti-terrorism legislation as a springboard to call the general election. With parties, including Labour, divided over the issue, it would have meant a campaign launched from quaking foundations. Howard is currently scoring popularity points against the prime minister. He is attempting a metamorphosis from hard-right home secretary under John Major, supporter of the detested poll and council taxes, a hardliner on everything from crime to abortion and the man of whom his colleague, Ann Widdicombe, a good right winger herself, said 'There is something of the night'. His popularity in his new touchy-feely move to the centre as environmentalist avatar has risen only in the face of Labour- Party problems and a sceptical electorate. It is difficult to believe that this paper mask of moderation would not slip if a Conservative government were elected, and shallow opportunism is unlikely to convince voters. It will take more than an unctuous smile for the Conservatives to give Labour a real run for their money.
In truth, with discussion of hung parliaments rife, however unpopular the government, it is hard to believe that the Conservatives are really hot competition. The Conservative long-term supporter is traditionally better at getting out and voting than the supporters of other parties and the party will certainly pick up a number of disaffected New Labour supporters. Unless an election campaign revitalizes unfashionable excitement in political process the turnout will probably be low. The massive swing required for the Conservatives to win is nigh on incredible. It is improbable that the Liberal Democrats will collect more than their usual handful of seats and the usual giant-killer win in some out-of-the-way constituency, allowing them to prophesy great things for the future. Their leader, Charles Kennedy, is a jolly good sort, a Scotsman who may or may not have a drink problem and is generally seen as likable and unthreatening. Neither he nor his party has the air of government about them. Their role will continue as occasional thorn in the side of both incumbent and opposition and guardians of good sense and moderation when havoc is called.
Perhaps the election campaign, when we finally finish the phoney war, will engender a new belief in the importance of our votes to the ruling of our country. Even if this is the case, it will hardly bring the major upheavals necessary to change the party of government. It seems more probable that the personalities of government and of opposition leadership will be shuffled. The Conservative Party needs to search through its files for the old leadership moulds if it is to have a relevant future. If I were a weary prime minister, I think I would be delighted to bow out gracefully. I fear, however, a renewal of the drawing and quartering of personalities which diminish our politicians at home and abroad as their entrails are chewed over in the press.