It’s a risky prediction as I could be proved wrong very quickly but I suspect the next batch of opinion polls will show a further narrowing of the gap between Labour and the Conservatives. No one is thinking about politics right now - as I write the stock market is down more than 8% in its first hour’s trading – but has there ever been a year of fluctuating fortunes like it? In a year Gordon Brown has gone from what looked like an unassailable lead to the lowest poll ratings ever recorded by Labour only now to find himself (if my prediction is right) a few points behind with everything to play for.
Excuse the anecdotalism, but down at the pub last night it wasn’t just that people thought Gordon was handling the crisis as well as could be expected. There seemed to be a deeper sense of cleaving to a man whose personality fitted the gravity of the world situation. In contrast, David Cameron was talked of as nice but irrelevant.
My favourite commentator Daniel Finklestein (not that I always agree with him) discussed this a few days ago. He made the powerful point that while Gordon Brown may benefit from a crisis, the next election will probably be fought out not with a global emergency as the backdrop but after fifteen months of economic slump. The mood then will not be ‘all hands to the pump’ but instead ‘time for a change’.
Danny may well be right. But there’s another way of looking at things. Gordon’s big problem with the electorate over the last nine months is that the voters have stopped listening to him. Government political strategists and policy analysts might agonise over what to he should say or announce but it was pretty much irrelevant if the average voter greeted the Prime Minister’s appearances on their TV screens by putting their hands over the ears and shouting ‘la la la’. Well, the voters are listening now. Labour’s challenge will be to keep them listening if and when the economic storm has passed and the long dispiriting clear-up begins.
Those who know Gordon well would also argue that his insecurity has been another problem. Over the last year it has too often felt that he and his advisors have, on the one hand, tried to avoid unpopular decisions while, on the other, scrabbling around to find something – anything - that might reconnect Brown with the voters. The consequence is that the Prime Minister has at times seemed both indecisive and desperate. People might have pinned their dislike for the PM on his personal characteristics or style but underlying this was a deeper critique of someone who claimed to be determined but seemed to back down under pressure, who talked about principle but seemed (especially over the election that wasn’t) an opportunist, or who called for a new politics but ran a divisive Number Ten.
But, events maketh the man. The voters want the Gordon Brown they see now. Serious, determined, willing to be bold at home and to provide leadership abroad. Perhaps the Prime Minister who emerges from the crisis will be someone who no longer feels the need to try to project anything other than who he really is. And when there is no easy option (the policy context for the next three years at least) why not do the right thing and be damned?
If I was forced to bet I guess I would still put my dwindling savings on the Tories but politics is only one of the many aspects of our world of which we can say; ‘what seemed possible a month ago is impossible now, what was impossible a month ago is suddenly worth thinking about’.