Legitimacy is a a recurring, and thorny, concept in today’s political dialogue. Is President Hamid Karzai’s Kabul regime a legitimate government, and does its legitimacy or lack thereof affect how we should feel about British presence in Afghanistan? Is it legitimate for a cheating MP to chair the Commons’ standards and privileges committee? How legitimate is the selection of a President and a High Representative over fine food and wine? And, of course, the question which has hung like mustard gas over the Labour Party for two years: how legitimate is its leader’s position as Prime Minister?
With the Queen’s Speech this week, the unelected PM geared up for his first election in the office. It is a vote, of course, which he is widely expected to lose. Martin Kettle brought up the Major comparison again this week (is this the start of a meme?): “A fifth year, heralded by a fifth Queen’s speech, is an invariable sign of political weakness […] This week Gordon Brown became the fifth peacetime prime minister of the universal suffrage era to enter this twilight parliamentary territory.” Five seems a rather large number given Kettle’s qualifications, but undoubtedly the fifth Queen’s Speech is a fag end of a thing, and many of Brown’s pronouncements – eerily spoken in the voice of an 83-year-old woman – felt a bit like ‘back to basics’: something of a whimper to the faithful. Polly Toynbee talked it up as a “red line” for the election, but Kettle’s bleaker assessment seems more accurate.
If Brown could pass most of these bills, he might be on to something – but his political capital seems too small to buy him that wish. As The Economist put it, “Labour has entered a strange political netherworld. It is not yet out of government; what it does still matters. But it is not altogether in power either.” This is no fun for anyone except possibly David Cameron, who wrote in The Times this week that, “Dig deeper into any of his plans and you’ll find pettiness masquerading as principle. What we need is radicalism and the Conservatives have proved that we are the only party to possess it.” Few will be convinced by the vision of the Tories as proven radicals, but patience with Labour is wearing thin: an anaemic Queen’s Speech was no real fillip at all. Brown would have been much better off with a Big Idea or two rather than another shopping list.
The European Union enjoyed little in the way of invigorating blasts this week, either. The Times called the choice of its two new leaders an ’embarrassment’; the FT declared that it was risking ‘irrelevance’. If Brown is having difficulty enthusing the electorate in a titanic struggle between two idealogues, then the EU didn’t even try to excite anyone with its choice of Herman Van Rompuy as its new President and Baroness Ashton as its ‘Foreign Minister’. Ashton in particular seems the last vagiely viable Brit for the post (Milliband and Mandelson weren’t available, Hoon was too connected to the Iraq war); at least Van Rompuy has the laudable achievement of bringing unity to a Belgian government in crisis. Both will be competent, but neither will inspire. Politics, after all, does not have to be exciting to be important; but elected politicians need enthusiasm in order to obtain the legitimacy necessary to govern. Labour’s slim chance of extending its time in office now rests on exciting enough people to grant them that legitimacy; so far, they show as little flair for inspiration as Brussels.