Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Viewpoint: Brown needs substance above style

A week is a long time in politics but as far as the Labour Party is concerned, a year must seem like an eternity. This time last year Tony Blair was still in the hot seat but today, as the party conference gets into full swing, he has vanished without trace, his passing largely unmourned.

The guard has changed and for Gordon Brown, the most immediate question is whether to call an autumn election to secure a fresh mandate from the country. Although he is riding high in the opinion polls, and the Tories are in disarray, he might be wiser to stay his hand.

Mr Brown's adroit handling of the foot and mouth outbreak in August - when, significantly, he was on holiday in Britain rather than swanning off abroad - earned him some early brownie points. But the crisis over Northern Rock, which may well dominate this week's conference, has undone much of the good work.

Suspicions have intensified that the Treasury forced the hand of the Bank of England to step in and prop up the ailing lender. Although the immediate panic subsided, longer term damage has been caused by the undermining of the Bank of England's much vaunted independence.

Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, continues to insist that the Bank is its own man, but there seems little doubt that the Treasury was pulling the strings. And while Northern Rock has been saved, what will happen next time a bank is hit by a credit crisis?

Mr Brown needs to clarify the Government's policy. He may insist that the economy is in good shape, but the slide in house prices, which has already started, will unsettle voters.

Another major challenge for Mr Brown is Iraq, where there are many questions about the strategy being adopted by the UK and United States. Mr Brown has noticeably distanced himself from President Bush, which is a wise move.

But as the Prime Minister warned a less than enthusiastic Trades Union Congress, there are no easy options in life. The Prime Minister, who seemed so charmed to have Lady Thatcher as his guest at Downing Street, needs to ensure that Britain is not held hostage this winter to a series of public sector strikes such as that at Royal Mail.

From a Northern Ireland perspective, Mr Brown has stepped back and sensibly allowed the Assembly to bed in. Certainly, the securing of political harmony was the high point of Mr Blair's final year in office, but now it is up to Mr Brown to come up with a deal on corporation tax which will make the private sector more competitive.

The Prime Minister lacks the flair and polish of his predecessor, but he is none the worse for that. After an era in which style counted for more than substance, the party - and the nation - will be quietly relieved to have a plodder in charge again.

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