The word crisis is the most overused in the media lexicon.
In ten years with Tony Blair, I think I witnessed five full blown crises –
Iraq, Kosovo, September 11, fuel protests and foot and mouth disease.
There were hundreds of situations described as crises, but
for me that means a set of circumstances which threatens to overwhelm your entire
organisation if the wrong decisions are taken. So the hundreds of so-called
crises were setbacks, problems unwanted or unexpected events which got in the
way, temporarily at least, of the strategic direction of the government.
The Damian McBride affair is a setback, a problem, an
unwanted if not entirely unexpected event which temporarily at least gets in
the way of the strategic direction of the government.
What must be particularly annoying for Gordon Brown is that,
thanks in large part to his successful handling of the G20 summit, the
strategic direction of the government was becoming stronger. He looked the
right man for the right problem, making the right alliances at the right time,
and David Cameron looked out of his depth. A Tory party anxious to make politics
a policy-free zone will milk the McBride row for all it is worth.
A real crisis may require new policy, structures and
personnel. The response to a a setback will depend on circumstances, but two
general rules should apply:
First, decide what you really believe to be the right thing,
and do it.
Second, get the whole story out there as quickly as you can,
That second lesson was one we learned particularly painfully
as some of the frenzies in The Blair Years showed.
This is now one of those stories that will be picked away at
until all the loose ends are pulled, so best to get them pulled quickly. For
that reason, I hope someone inside No 10 is getting to the very bottom of this
I do not for one second believe Gordon Brown would have
known about this, let alone sanctioned it. As I said on the blog yesterday, policy is where the Tories
are weak. It is where Gordon is strong. Of course relatives have been targeted
before, usually left of centre wives – Hillary, Cherie, and Glenys all spring
to mind. But I know Gordon well enough to know he would have no truck with what
was being mooted in these emails.
But it did happen on his watch and with one of his key
people involved. So, on doing the right thing, there is the question of
Cameron’s call for an apology. There may be politics attached to it, but it is
worth asking the question – if a Tory spin doctor had been found to be planning
smears against the families of Labour politicians, would we have asked for, and
expected, an apology? I think the answer is yes.
The worry may be that if he does, the Tories will then move
to what they see as the bigger prize – an apology for the global economic crisis
(a real crisis by the way, and GB’s first.) But I have seen a fair bit of
polling on this. The public are not looking for an apology. They are looking to
the government to sort it out, and GB has been getting more credit from the
public on that than the media debate would suggest.
Which brings me back to the real damage of this setback –
the halting of the traction he was getting on the economic situation; the
stalling in the sense growing that the Tories under Cameron would not be up to
the scale of the task in hand.
It will not be easy to penetrate the noise surrounding the
McBride affair in the short term. But provided the right things are done in the
coming days, it will be possible to get back on to the policy track quicker
than it may seem to those in No 10 today. First off though, the public has to see
that when GB says he condemns this type of politics, he really means it.