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The Political Year 2007

  • Michael Crick
  • 21 Dec 07, 04:46 PM

osborne203x100.jpgIt happened in Blackpool, around 11am on Monday 1 October - not just the crucial turning point in the politics of 2007, but what could prove to be a decisive moment in the politics of this year, and perhaps this decade.

Until that morning Gordon Brown and Labour were riding high in the polls, with wide expectations that the Prime Minister would call (and win) a snap election in early November.

Indeed, over the summer the Conservatives were in such dire straits, following their spring row over grammar schools, that some people were wondering whether they’d really made the right choice when David Cameron was elected leader in 2005.

'Things will change'

And it was quite widely suggested that Cameron would have to move Osborne from Shadow Chancellor: Osborne was too lightweight, it was said, and Cameron should do all he could to persuade William Hague to take the job instead. Is there anything we can do to turn things round, Tories would ask me over lunch.

“Don’t worry, things will change,” I told them. “They always do. Brown’s honeymoon can’t last for ever.” And now I find myself saying the same sort of thing to Labour MPs.

George Osborne’s speech that October morning wasn’t a great oration in traditional terms - there were no great moments of rhetoric, no memorable lines. But it had an almost immediate effect on the political landscape.

His two proposals - to increase the inheritance tax threshold to £m, and to reduce stamp duty on house purchases - excited Tories in Blackpool and gave them new hope. More important, his tax plans grabbed the public imagination. Labour’s poll lead suddenly got narrower; Tory spirits rose markedly; and Gordon Brown had to announce there wouldn’t be an election, after all.

Labour has yet to recover from the-election-that-never-was.

A general malaise descended over the party; Labour ministers and backbenchers have spent the autumn in a demoralised daze, despairing about what Brown should do.

browng_203x100.jpgWeek after week David Cameron trounced Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions; big set pieces which were trailed as a chance for Gordon Brown to set out his great “vision” fell flat - among them the autumn Queen’s Speech, and the Prime Minister’s annual Guildhall speech on foreign policy.

In politics, failure tends to breed failure. Where the opposition parties and the media sense that a government is in trouble, then small crises become big ones, and ministers spent the autumn dogged by the woes of Northern Rock, the missing Revenue & Customs discs, and a new party funding scandal.

If George Osborne is a strong contender for politician of the year, he’s not without opposition.

On the government side, my nominee would be Jack Straw, the great survivor, who has sat continuously on the Labour front bench since 1981. Well before Tony Blair finally stood down, Straw took command of Gordon Brown’s leadership campaign, and handled it brilliantly, to the extent that all possible opposition was deterred or barred from standing - including David Miliband and John Reid.

Politician of the year

So ruthless and determined was the Brown camp in collecting nominations that the only other declared contender, John McDonnell, failed to get enough MPs to back him. Indeed, a little known fact was that with nominations from 313 Labour MPs by the end, Gordon Brown could boast that, excluding Irish members and the Speaker and his deputies, he had been backed by a majority of British MPs.

Other contenders for politician of the year must surely include Alex Salmond, for his success in becoming first minister of Scotland; those other great survivors Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, for finally agreeing power-sharing (and working together like life-long chums); and of course, the Lib Dem acting leader (after Ming Campbell’s resignation) Vince Cable, whose line about Gordon Brown turning from Stalin to Mr Bean was the most memorable Commons quote of the year.

vince_cable203x100.jpgCable impresses voters with his air of common sense of reasonableness, and in a TV studio has the disarming and attractive tactic of agreeing with about half of what his opponent says, before then gently explaining why the other half is rubbish.

There’s clearly a bit of needle in his exchanges with Gordon Brown - perhaps because Cable is a decent economist (who has excelled on Northern Rock). Maybe because the two men used to work together when they were both members of the Labour Party in Scotland in the 1970s, and they both contributed to the Socialist Red Paper on Scotland.

Nick Clegg will have great difficulty matching Cable’s performances in the Commons. The new Liberal Democrat leader launched his leadership campaign in Sheffield by saying his party’s new leader would need to take risks, but then, as front-runner, ran a campaign which did anything but take risks - nor, does his new front bench team announced just before Christmas suggest the kind of risk-taking he spoke of.


Unless Clegg does shake up his party in quite a radical way, at the cost of annoying a few Lib Dems, then he’ll find it hard to win back voters at a time when the centre ground of British politics has become exceedingly crowded. One such risk (though hardly a great vote-winner) could be to drop ‘Liberal Democrat’ in favour of plain Liberal - the term he frequently he used during his leadership challenge, not, it seems, by accident.

George Osborne and David Cameron could tell Nick Clegg a thing or two about taking risks. I’m told there was quite a debate within the Tory high command over whether Osborne should actually announce his tax measures in Blackpool.

The risk-takers argued that the Tories had to do something to win back ground ahead of a likely election. More cautious heads argued that cutting inheritance tax might backfire, and that tax cuts were no longer a great vote-winner.

Ultimately the risk-takers prevailed, Osborne made his speech, and the story of 2007 took us in a very new direction.

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