It's beginning to look a lot like 1996. Then, a British Government of many years standing found itself — under the often ineffectual direction of their second Prime Minister — gradually coming to pieces. And a charismatic, young Opposition leader was looking hungrily towards a general election.
Today Gordon Brown finds himself in a position not unlike that of John Major a dozen years ago. There are of course decided differences between Major's Tories and the Labour Government of today, but they are beginning to share that same whiff of irreversible decline.
The Glasgow East by-election will — and should — serve as a significant shock to the Government. By-elections by their nature are usually more about short-term effect rather than long-term significance. But a majority of 13,500 wiped out and Labour's 25th safest seat handed to the Scottish Nationalists? These are the ingredients for panic among backbenchers with more modest majori
ties to defend when Cameron's new model Conservatives take to the field in the next election.
Mr Brown has less than two years to stop the rot — less if his party gets particularly flighty — and it doesn't look like enough. His decision to drop the planned increase in petrol taxes appeared to be too little, too late for the voters of Glasgow East.
We are often reminded that things can change rapidly in politics, but the lesson of the Major years was that some mindsets, like the idea that a government has run its course, can become remarkably fixed.
That rumbling the Labour party can now hear may
be simply the mid-term discontent of a country fed up with a litany of economic woes. But it could be the coming avalanche.
In which case the Ulster Unionists' courtship with the Tories is looking even more astute. Partly because a robust electoral performance can have impressive coat-tails, but also because of the aftermath of the next general election. Having the ear of a Prime Minister with a comfortable term in front of him is generally a distinct political advantage.
In the meantime, the instability lapping around the Brown Government will also ripple across the
Irish Sea — especially as the DUP and Sinn Fein look for London intervention in the current little deadlock at Stormont that prevents the Executive from meeting. When the Major administration was in decline in ’96, political progress in Ulster went into temporary paralysis. Republicans especially calculated that it was preferable to wait for 1997 and the next government than deal with a lame duck.
That attitude this time would not only be bad for Northern Ireland, it would be a mistake for the two parties concerned. History has given the Tories no great love for Sinn Fein, and the DUP has been in Mr Cameron’s bad books since they threw Mr Brown a nine-vote lifeline in last month’s division over 42-day detentions.
Whatever political capital the DUP has with the Prime Minister should be called in while he’s still around to pay his debts. Glasgow East sent a message to the parties here, too: sort out the stalemate at Stormont while you can. Then start thinking about how to deal with Prime Minister Cameron.