When a government minister is upbraided in public by an actress, in a photo opportunity which looks for al the world like Jennings being admonished by the school nurse, it is a sure sign that someone, somewhere, has lost control of the news agenda. Phil Woolas allowing himself to be cornered by the Gurkhas’ most recognisable advocate was bad enough; but Joanna Lumley succeeded in sounded both intelligent and plain-speaking, whilst the immigration minister was reduced to tongue-tied semi-concessions.
This would have been a major public relations disaster for any other government, but Brown’s is made of sterner stuff: they want to take it all on. To that end, the Daily Telegraph – which Guido Fawkes was accusing a few short weeks ago of being in Downing Street’s pocket – is drip-feeding the world the lurid details of Cabinet ministers’ expense claims. The expenses system is hopeless, and this story could have broke any time in the last 10 years – ministers apply to the system that exists, not the one we’d hope to exist. It has, though, broken on Brown’s watch, and this because Brown has lost the authority to control his own party – who voted against him and with Miss Lumley – let alone the media.
Nick Robinson says the whole mess has brought the reputation of Parliament to an historic low. Perhaps, perhaps not. What is clear is that it has brought the ability of a government to manage the narrative to an historic low – matched perhaps only by the dying days of John Major’s government, when Labour set to grinding an already defeated party into the dust.
The Tories look set to kill Brown with kindness, supporting him in the vote on part-privatisation of the Post Office, trapping him into either abandoning a flagship policy or passing it with opposition ayes. They also know they can’t push things too far – Cameron risked looking like a bullying toff this week at PMQs, and more of that will likely not be so forthcoming. The Tories are not loved like Blair’s New Labour; they can put the boot in only so far.
Still, Labour will likely do the job themselves. As Steve Richards (often good on internal party politics) points out, the party has many more problems than merely its hapless, decompassed leader. Certainly, though, he doesn’t help them pretend otherwise.