Thank goodness prime minister Gordon Brown had the sheer brass neck to call a general election in October, forcing the Tories to cancel their conference. A majority of 40-plus was good enough for a fourth term. Yes, the local elections were a bloody nose, but you can live with a bloody nose when you know you have got another four years in power to get over it.
If only, if only. Those days in September and October were when the canker took hold. Mr Brown faffed around, incapable of either going for an election or ending the speculation. Then he bailed out, saying it had nothing to do with opinion polls. And it has been downhill ever since.
Of course Labour blames the economic anxiety from the credit crunch and rising fuel and food prices.
But I don’t think it’s the economy, stupid. I think it is Mr Brown, or rather, the monumental political incompetence of the prime minister.
He had a year’s warning of the impact of the abolition of the 10% tax band. He’s had over a month since the Budget to recognise and get to grips with the fallout from it. Yet by refusing to accept there was a problem, then failing to spell out a convincing answer to it, Mr Brown made sure that the headlines about Labour hitting the poorest paid dominated the local government election campaign. He sent an Exocet missile straight into the loyalty of his core voters and it exploded.
This was incompetence a failure of the most basic political technology to recognise when to stop pounding blindly ahead on a contested course of action. He is at it again with the proposal to extend detention without trial to 42 days. What is the matter? Are there no periscopes in the Downing Street bunker?
It is conventional wisdom to say that nothing in politics is ever quite so bad or quite as good as it first appears. The local government election disproves the dictum. There was no iota of comfort for Labour. Look at the way the Welsh valleys deserted. It is good news for Labour that there were no elections in Scotland because I suspect they would have produced a drubbing at the hands of the Scottish National Party.
It was as good for the Tories as they claimed. Privately they had set a gain of about 160 seats as the starting point for a good night. They topped that by 100. They profited in good part from a revolt of the suburbs.
The suburbs put Boris Johnson into City Hall as London mayor. North Tyneside Council gave them their first real presence in the north-east. Bury MBC joins Trafford MBC in the Greater Manchester watershed.
It was always a mistake for the Tories to talk of winning seats in the heart of Manchester and Liverpool even Tony Blair never aspired to turn Surrey red. But a string of councils in the north-west and the West Midlands mean the party is not confined to its southern bastions.
The truth is that the Tories can win a general election without the north. Labour MPs with seats in the south-east must feel like captured missionaries watching the cooking pot boil. Tory leader David Cameron might also reflect that if he can deliver 44% of the vote without any of the policy details the commentators are constantly demanding he put on display there is no need to lash policy supremo Oliver Letwin into a frenzy of invention!
Local income tax did not ‘do it’ for the Liberal Democrats. I suspect the Lib Dems went into the fray with some trepidation, given Nick Clegg’s difficult debut as leader. They were probably relieved that the result fell into the ‘small earthquake, not many dead’ category.
Here’s a thought for Mr Brown. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report tells us that elections in Britain are unsafe because they are so open to fraud. Well, how about declaring the elections null and void and re-running them with voters required to prove identity? We could even bring observers in from Zimbabwe to verify the results.
Ah well, only a thought.