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The sea, the weather and the skipper: the economic tide turns in Gordon Brown’s favour – Health Policy Today, 22nd September 200

In recent weeks and months, much of the media has formed a conclusion  that Gordon Brown is unsuited to modern politics.  Last week’s economic events may mean, however, that in the last week politics has changed to suit Gordon Brown.


On the Andrew Marr Show, Gordon Brown looked at his most comfortable for some time.  He was using many of his favourite phrases, talking about “global economic frameworks” and “the disparity between global finance and national regulation”.  Brown told Andrew Marr that for those looking for the defining feature in new politics, “it’s the global economy, stupid”.  Last week’s economic trouble has moved politics into territory with which Gordon Brown seems very comfortable.

'Brown said that through the period of government there are constantly referendums on whether the government is getting it right, “but at a general election a real choice takes place”'

In essence, Brown’s message was that the world had changed and nobody but him is qualified to navigate a shaky ship on choppy waters, amid a difficult storm.  “What is needed here is wisdom”, he said.  “At every point in this financial crisis, the Tories have made the wrong decisions”.  

The PM was reminded by Andrew Marr that there was a lot of disquiet in his own party - could he survive it?  Gordon Brown then used an analogy that he repeated twice more during the interview.  Brown said that through the period of government there are constantly referendums on whether the government is getting it right, “but at a general election a real choice takes place”.  He declared himself confident that on policy ground, on questions of economic foundation, that the voters would make the right choice between the Conservatives of Labour.

Andrew Marr used the analogy of the sea (political conditions) the weather (economic) and the skipper (Prime Minister), and asked GB whether he was pleased with his own captaincy.  The PM said, “the best way to deal with a story is to face it, and we will not bail out”.  


As Nick Robinson told the Today Programme this morning, “the economics of last week has certainly affected the politics of this”.  What could have been a week of Labour naval-gazing will now be dominated by the economic crisis, and allow Brown to set out the government’s response.

supremo Sir Alan Sugar recorded a message for conference.  “Who better to be in place when we have an economic problem?”, he boomed.

Amid continuing poor polls, a survey for the Independent on Sunday seemed to give Gordon Brown some support.   Under the headline,  Brown’s stock rises as voters endorse handling of crisis’  the paper noted that around 60% of their sample agree with the statement ‘with the economy in its present state, now is the wrong time for Labour to think of changing Prime Minister.  


Over the last few weeks, the Labour government has been under a lot of pressure from the opposition.  Both Liberal Democrat and Conservative parties are developing a narrative that reduces the state and state spending.  In his speech today, Alastair Darling tried to say that last week had moved the debate on.  The changes in America were a symbol of how the economic crisis had changed politics, he said.  “When the whole world sees that there must be a greater role for Government, the Tories appear to want to walk away”.

In the US, it has been interesting to hear politicians who have staked their reputation on free markets start to change their language.  A statement from President Bush said his first instinct was to let the free markets work.  He changed his mind when experts explained to him that the problem was so significant that massive federal help was needed.  “America’s economy is facing unprecedented challenges, and we are responding with unprecedented action”.

In contrast to opposition arguments for a smaller state and less spending, on the Andrew Marr Show, Gordon Brown made clear that a bigger and interventionist government is helping to manage the crisis.  He quite confidently said that those calling for a smaller state were wrong.  The Government could afford to borrow because it had reduced the national debt and, more to the point, he believes that in the current climate it is the right thing to increase spending and be more interventionist in the economy.

In his speech to the Labour conference today, Alastair Darling signalled that he was prepared to borrow billions more in order to keep the economy going.  “The key thing to do is that when the economy slows down you support it”.  Because of the change in America, Darling can now talk openly as an interventionist Keynesian when just a few short weeks ago, he was terrified about being accused of nationalising Northern Rock.


Although Gordon Brown is casting himself today as the rock to cling to in the midst of a stormy sea, it is a high-risk strategy and an indication of the weak position he find himself last week, with Labour MPs readying to spark a challenge.

If, if , the economy improves then the Brown strategy will have been successful.  It is an incredible risk to take when the economic news will most likely worsen.  While Brown is talking about international governance and grand-scale macro questions, it is the micro-economic questions that will matter: the level of repossessions, the cost of fuel and so on.  

Last week, Steve Richards, political editor of the Independent, predicted that whoever could forge a narrative that explained the current economic situation and could reassure people that they had a path through it would gain the political upper hand.  Gordon Brown has been the first to emerge with such a narrative.  It remains to be seen how close to this script events will be.

Andrew Marr asked a good question during his Sunday show.  “Do you ever get the impression that we’re not following real-world events, but rather the script of some rather badly-written novel?”