Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Gaining the Gurkhas Their Victory

It continues to be a torrid political week for Gordon Brown. He'd barely stepped off the plane before he had to face the first parliamentary defeat of his premiership. Parliamentary defeats are not a novelty for New Labour in government - Tony Blair faced four, casting the role of the House of Commons as a genuine check upon a potentially powerful executive into sharp relief. Ironically, there was always a degree of ambiguity about the then Chancellor's role in fomenting some useful backbench dissent. How the now prime minister must wonder why he bothered, as he too sees a House of Commons willing to assert its virility.

The problem for Gordon Brown is that today's defeat was on an issue powered in part by a strong sentiment of attachment to a legendary British regiment, whose campaign has been spear-headed by a still popular and very presentable actress. One has the vague impression that Tony Blair, ever attuned to public feeling as he was, would never have allowed this home grown crisis to get as far as it has. Gordon Brown genuinely lacks a populist touch - for some a positive merit - and seems not to have anyone in his inner circle who can compensate.

Today's defeat not only illustrates the success of a well aimed, well funded pressure group campaign (which AS-level politics students would be well advised to study closely), but it also raises up the first successful Lib Dem-Conservative collaboration. Nick Clegg can claim a real victory for the Lib Dems with this motion, but it is interesting to see him and Cameron share a press conference with Lumley, giving each other space to say their peace and coming across as the epitome of sensible political co-operation. Perhaps their joint experience with Gordon Brown a few days ago, when he bawled at David Cameron for asking questions about MPs expenses at Prime Minister's Questions, and then had to listen to Clegg calling time on an unhelpful meeting, has thrown them more closely together. Whatever the reason, their obvious ability to work together when necessary can only be an utterly depressing sight for the Labour Party.

Even worse for the prime minister, a quick glance at the names of some of his own Labour rebels might suggest a quiet raising of the Blairite standard. Fresh from criticising the Budget, former Blairite minister Stephen Byers is also a rebel on the Gurkha motion, along with another former Cabinet minister, Andrew Smith. An ally of the Justice Secretary has been one of the organisers. And the worst news of all? The Cabinet minister responsible for dealing with this hapless situation is none other than Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Now is that really who you want in the front line on a sensitive issue?

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