Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Dripping Taps

Just a few short months ago, I suggested that Gordon Brown would win the next election whenever it was called. He looked pretty invincible at the time, but his position has been steadily eroded. By now he looks like a man no longer in control of his own destiny.

It’s not the detail of the various stories, or twists on stories, which are damaging, so much as the way in which there is always more. As John Major found out in his turn, it's the steady drip, drip, drip which does the job. And when a tap is dripping, merely trying to turn it tighter and tighter won’t solve the problem in the long term, and rarely helps in the short term either. Just when he thinks the worst is over, someone asks another awkward question which fires the next twist or turn.

The parallel with John Major, whilst far from perfect, does have some resonance in other ways as well. The attempts to tough it out; the attempts to hold on to his friends when he should be sacrificing them for the greater good; the attempts to rationalise the individual stories as being unimportant in themselves - these all bring back memories of the past.

Equally familiar are the attempts to turn the fire back on the accusers, and draw attention to their misdeeds – to say nothing of the way in which the accusers conveniently ignore their own misdeeds whilst they press home the attack, and somehow get away with it.

Loyalists refer to a media frenzy – it’s a fair point, but I’m afraid it’s irrelevant. Fairness is no longer the issue nor the story. The story now is Brown, and the way he deals with the series of crises which have befallen him.

I suspect that Brown is genuinely angry at what has been done by some of those around him, and rightly so. I suspect that he feels that having a number of prominent people hounded out of office for pretty minor misdemeanours is unfair and unjust – and he may well be right on that. It is a sad reflection on the body politic that being right is just not enough. Perception is what counts, and things have already gone too far.

Is all lost? Actually, I don’t think that it is – yet. But it will be soon unless he gets a grip. He needs to clean out the stable, and to be seen to be doing so. A few heads rolling now, a clean breast of everything to the police and the Electoral Commission so as to get the investigations concluded quickly, and quick action to further tighten the rules on the funding of political parties could all wrongfoot the Tories, and leave them struggling for funding. They are, after all, even more dependent on large personal donations than Labour. Shadowy organisations and funds could do with a little more investigation too.

The very worst thing he can do is appear to procrastinate.

Monday, 3 December 2007

From the Heritage Bunker (Episode 4)

Minister: Ah, Sir Humphrey! I need to talk to you. I’ve had a letter from the Botanical Gardens asking for financial help.

Sir Humphrey: Indeed, Minister? How much do they want this time?

Minister: This time?

Sir Humphrey: Your predecessor was extremely generous to them the last time they got into financial trouble. How much do they say they need this time?

Minister: £1.7 million to clear their debts, and an extra £500,000 a year thereafter.

Sir Humphrey: That’s a great deal of money, Minister. Shall I have the civil servants draw up the customary refusal? Budgets are very tight this year.

Minister: That’s not what we said to the Millennium Centre – and the Garden are only asking for a fraction of what we gave them.

Sir Humphrey: That’s completely different, Minister. One simply cannot compare the two cases.

Minister: Why not? The press are comparing the two.

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, the Millennium Centre is a home for the Arts. Opera, Theatre, Concerts, world-class performances. The Botanic Gardens is just a... just a… just a garden!

Bernard: And it’s in Carmarthen rather than Cardiff.

Minister: I don’t quite see the difference.

Sir Humphrey: Minister, really! The Millennium Centre is vital to all our work in attracting employment and boosting the economy.

Minister: How?

Sir Humphrey: Well it’s really very simple. The captains of industry, the people who make the decisions on investment – culture is extremely important to them. The Millennium Centre is a show case of what Wales can put on at its best.

Minister: You mean a lot of people singing in Italian is the cream of Welsh culture?

Sir Humphrey: World culture, Minister. We have a world-beating stage to stage events, and they are a major attraction to the captains of industry.

Minister: And senior civil servants?

Sir Humphrey: It isn’t easy to get the top people from London to come and spend time working in Cardiff you know.

Bernard: They certainly wouldn’t go to Carmarthenshire.

Minister: But surely we can find some money. Aren’t there some more underspends we can use, like we did for the Millennium Centre?

Sir Humphrey: But that’s Arts money, Minister! You can’t simply spend Arts money on a garden! People don’t pay good money in taxes to subsidise a garden!

Minister: Surely it’s all Heritage money? Isn’t it up to me how we spend it?

Bernard: Not exactly, Minister. Although the Department has a total amount of money to spend, the budget splits it down into lots of sub-headings, each of which has its own total, and if you increase the total under one, then you’d have to decrease the total under another, and then you'd have to explain why the one that you're decreasing was so high in the first place that it was possible to reduce it later.

Minister: What?

Sir Humphrey: One can’t simply switch money from Opera to gardening!

Minister: So what do we do?

Sir Humphrey: We tell them that we’ve bailed them out once, on condition that they did not come back again, and that they’ll have to find private finance to make up their deficit.

Minister: So you’re telling me that I can always find money for an Arts project, but there will never be enough for the Gardens?

Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.