Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Early critical appraisal

Politics as usual from Brown

Posted by Chris Ames

Monday, 8 June 2009 at 03:15 pm

Is this as good as it gets? The spin coming out of Number 10 is that Gordon Brown will use an Iraq inquiry and a delay to the part-privatisation of the post office to appease voters and, more immediately, the Labour MPs who are circling him. There is virtually nothing new in the Iraq inquiry story, but Brown’s attempt to get a few quick brownie points shows he is still wedded to the old, discredited way of doing politics. He still doesn’t get it.

That the prime minister pre-announced his long-delayed inquiry by briefing the press should surprise no-one. With UK combat troops about to complete their withdrawal from the country, the inquiry has become something he can no longer run away from. Although it seemed for a while that he would try to delay any announcement until after the parliamentary summer recess, this would have meant spinning out the withdrawal near to the last possible date of 31 July. Fortunately, the withdrawal seems to have gone smoothly, limiting Brown’s room for manoeuvre. But in the hole that he finds himself, and with sections of the press proving as gullible as ever, he is trying to turn even this to his advantage.

Exactly when the inquiry will take place remains to be seen but the more important question now is what it will look like. The issue could be the first test for a new way of conducting politics, but the signs are not good. Since the tsunami of the expenses scandal hit British politics, the political class has come to a new consensus, that a renewal of the democratic process is the way to restore public confidence. Brown says he is the man to lead that renewal, which he calls a “clean-up”. His Iraq inquiry gives him an early opportunity to show that he means business. A truly open, honest inquiry would be a statement that the old ways are dead. But he has shown no sign that he gets it.

So far, it has been the old routine of nods and winks signifying nothing – and to achieve not so much party political advantage as personal political advantage. After the savaging Brown got at Friday’s press conference for first briefing that Alistair Darling was for the chop, then denying it when he was too weak to wield the blow, you would think he would learn. But he seems incapable of learning. He has only one way of doing things.

If Brown wanted to signal a fresh start, he would not in the first place have used press briefings to pre-announce something he has steadfastly refused to announce in Parliament. Beyond that, he would be at pains to stress that he wants an inquiry that will have the widest political support and is open to suggestions. He would seek to build public confidence by being as open as possible and address the issues that the public want to see cleared up, like whether the war was justified or based on a whole series of lies.

But Brown seems to be using his spin machine to angle for an inquiry on his terms, as secretive as possible and looking at the issues that will do least damage to Labour. As far as I know, and true to form, the government has made no attempt to consult opposition parties on the issue. But the Telegraph’s Patrick Hennessy, who has clearly been briefed, said on Saturday that:

“Ministers are thought to have concluded that the main focus should be the conduct of the 2003 war and the breakdown of law and order afterwards.”

Hennessy also pointed out that ministers have given heavy hints that the inquiry will be modelled on the Franks inquiry, which looked in secret at the Falklands war. None of the spin coming out of Number 10 suggests that it is proposing anything more open than this.

It’s been clear for a while that Brown has run out of ideas and has no idea how to do anything differently, but this non-announcement really is scraping the bottom of the barrel. It’s depressing to think that it might just be enough.



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