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Brown at the midterm

In the six months since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister there has been an extraordinary volatility about British politics. Opinion polls have shown first a strong Labour lead, then, following the mishandling of the speculation concerning a possible autumn election, the Conservatives took the lead. The election fever that gripped the country created unexpected pressures: the Conservative leader was able to relieve the pressure on him by some astute handling of his party conference. Liberal Democrats, by contrast, were squeezed so intensively that Ming Campbell felt compelled to stand down. Now, as we enter 2008, a new political agenda seems to be emerging.

Gordon Brown, somewhat battered by the blow back from the election that never was, has begun to launch a charm offensive in the media: a long interview with the Observer yesterday was paired with an appearance on the Andrew Marr show and then this morning he was on the Today programme. A veritable blizzard of appearances from a Prime Minister who has hitherto been slightly reclusive clearly indicates some new year's resolutions in Downing Street.

I think it is too easy for the Prime Minister's political opponents to right him off- as the typically misfiring William Rees Mogg does in today's Times. To a degree, despite his early mistakes, Brown still has some powerful weapons in his armoury. As PM, he still controls policy, and remains able to dictate much of the political agenda- and wrong foot the Conservatives, as the inheritance tax policy theft has shown. Even his dour demeanour, often mocked, may prove to be an asset in the more complicated economic environment that the credit crunch is confronting us with. In short, rather than looking a the death spiral of NuLabour, we may in fact only be looking at the midterm blues. In fact, the fact that Labour have been so roundly thrashed in previous years local elections may even give them an opportunity to stage something of a comeback this year. Furthermore, the selection by the Conservatives of the pointless Boris Johnson as their candidate for Mayor of London, even gives a chance for the equally pointless and more odious Ken Livingstone to hang on to his job. So the May elections may prove to be a real disappointment for the opposition.

The Liberal Democrats are looking like a pretty poor bet in the short term. The schedule of the leadership election has meant that the emergence of Nick Clegg as the leader has come at a time of considerable competing distractions. Even his first time out at Prime Minister's questions is likely to be overshadowed by the result of the New Hampshire primary- although to be honest this is probably a good thing, since it will take a lot of the pressure off the occasion. Soon, the new leader will have to move beyond the rhetoric of comfort zones and actually define himself and his party- and again the May results will provide a benchmark for his success in the task.

For David Cameron, although he has begun to unite his party to a much greater degree, the knowledge must still be with him that only four months ago he was on the ropes and looking increasingly shop-soiled. The Conservatives still have much to do to demonstrate their credibility, which could disappear as quickly as their leader's hair line seems to be doing.

So, we seem to be in a much more competitive political environment, but that in itself does not condemn Labour to an inevitable defeat- more's the pity. I think we can expect a bout of political trench warfare. The challenge for Nick Clegg is how to avoid this war of attrition and still remain relevant. Making speeches about the end of the two party system is all very well, but we need to establish a coherent ideological agenda- to look more like the air force than the Conservative and Labour infantry below. That is the challenge for Nick Clegg in 2008.

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