By June 2007, after ten years, many people in the UK had got fed up with Tony Blair. There had been disappointing local election results. There was grumbling about the NHS and education. And there were many leftists in his party who wanted a redder kind of Labour and less enthusiasm for UK involvement in Iraq. And a growing band of MPs who had been passed over for office, of course.
Now Tony Blair must think that handing over to Gordon Brown was the smartest move he ever made. It all started well enough. Faced with many challenges – attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, Foot & Mouth Disease, and widespread summer flooding – Brown exuded an air of reassuring calm and confidence. Labour climbed to 40% in the polls. A Conservative MP defected. The Opposition seemed unable to land any punches, and reluctant to outline any policies of its own. Labour backroom workers started preparing for an early election.
It was an election that Gordon Brown could have won, giving himself a full five-year programme, albeit with a probably smaller majority. But he wouldn't say yes – and wouldn't say no. Not wanting to allow the Conservative conference to upstage him, he waited a fateful week. By then, George Osborne had announced plans for massive cuts in Inheritance Tax, the election fever smoked out other policy ideas that the public found attractive, and the Conservatives started shooting up in the polls. There would be no Autumn 2007 election.
It made Brown look like a ditherer. Then came Northern Rock. Then the Inland Revenue lost disks containing 25m addresses and bank details. There were funding scandals, with one Cabinet Minister being forced out. Then anger as tax changes came in, ending the 10p starting rate for lower earners. Party animosities turned to open warfare as people jostled for position to replace this dead man walking. [Click 'read more' to continue]
Meanwhile, Brown's own chickens have come home to roost. Much as he blames international factors for the UK's economic woes, the fact is that he presided, as Chancellor, over a ten-year tax-and-spend (indeed, tax-and-spend-and-borrow) binge. When the economy hit a rough patch, there was no money in the Treasury to carry us through it. And cheap credit had encouraged individuals to borrow too, leaving them without any rainy-day money. The Bank of England's attempts to keep the system liquid just fuelled inflation.
It's all depressingly familiar. In the last years of John Major's administration, he could do nothing right either. Smelling defeat, the media picked holes in every move and initiative. And now, stagflation is back, a grim reminder of Harold Wilson's era, and stemming from the same profligate abuse of the public finances. It's difficult not to feel sad for Gordon Brown – he waited so long, but now the job has turned to dust in his hands.