The financial system is in meltdown. The world is on the brink of depression with all the social and political consequences that implies (none of them good). You might have expected a Labour prime minister to concentrate on helping his country in its moment of danger. Not so with Gordon Brown.
Westminster journalists are discovering all kinds of derelictions of duty. The business lending guarantee scheme, which was meant to provide bridging loans to stop firms from closing, is weeks behind schedule . The private financing of public works, which I was banging on about more than 10 years ago is proving a greater disaster than even I imagined. Although there is an urgent need for public works to save the construction industry, there is no private finance because, as you will have noticed, lending has stalled. Brown won’t sort it out
Obviously, Brown is happier talking to Congress about global schemes for financial reform than getting on with the hard business of government. Note, though, that his idea that global institutions did not warn of a coming crisis is part of the Brownite myth that our troubles have nothing to do with his shocking failure to regulate finance capital. As early as 2006, the International Monetary Fund said
The wholesale revolution in the financial services industry in recent years could trigger an outbreak of instability “with macroeconomic consequences” unless it is adequately monitored. It told a seminar at the Bank of England that technological changes and financial deregulation had changed the way that banks and other players operated. It said the increase in competition and the number of new players such as hedge funds in the financial systems would force central banks and regulators to change the way they set interest rates and regulated markets. It told senior City figures and economists at a briefing in London on Friday that the greater speed and flexibility of financial markets such as Britain and the United States could leave them more exposed to booms and busts in asset prices.
How right the IMF was.
But Brown also has an alarming ability to switch from the grandiose to the petty as the curious case of my colleague Martin Bright shows. As political editor of the New Statesman he made a critical documentary on Ken Livingstone for Channel 4. (It’s still worth watching and you can see it here.)
Although Livingstone is barely in the Labour Party, and although Bright criticised him from the left for betraying every decent social democratic principle by forming alliances with the misogynists, homophobes and anti-semites of the Islamist far right, Brown was furious. His henchman Charlie Whelan set about driving Bright out. (I and many others know this for a fact because Whelan went round Westminster boasting how he would get Bright out.) Bright was duly driven out.
I should declare an interest. I was forced out of the New Statesman for writing What’s Left? But then the office politics of the Statesman have always been in inverse proportion to its sales, and I can live with the denunciations of editors for deviating from the party line. They are free decide who writes for a paper. Politicians are not, and it strikes me as a far more serious matter that the Prime Minister of what is meant to be a free country can determine who writes about politics in what is meant to be a free press.
Bright had to move on, and the Spectator hired him to write a blog, the Bright Stuff. In one tiny item, which did not even appear in the print edition he reported that
Obama showed that it was possible to apologise with good grace over his appointment of Tom Daschle. Now word reaches The Bright Stuff that the man who has never knowingly apologised for anything is preparing his very own “mea culpa”. I am told that Whitehall officials have been ordered to make a compilation DVD of Obama’s various apologies to the American TV networks to be studied by the Prime Minister. The idea of Gordon Brown practising a humble self-deprecating manner in front of the mirror based on what he has seen on his training DVD doesn’t bear thinking about. But then again… maybe it does.
In another item, which again only appeared on his blog, he wrote
As the Cabinet meets in Southampton today there is one issue that will be strictly off the agenda: the Brown legacy. I have it on very good authority that Gordon and those around him will not even allow the subject to be discussed in case it suggests that he knows the next election is lost. People coming to him with new ideas are told not to use the “L word”.
As before, this was interesting news but hardly earth-shattering.
Downing Street went wild, however, and is still wild, perhaps because both stories were true. Rather than concentrating on the visit to Washington and the future of the economy, the PM’s most senior advisers are berating a journalist for his blog posts.
The last prime minister to become so obsessed with poor press coverage was John Major.
He led his party to a landslide defeat.