Gordon Brown is probably regretting a number of things right now – the 10p tax debacle, Crewe and Nantwich by-election tactics, and the sly assault on gas-guzzling cars in the last Budget spring readily to mind.
Given that the prime minister finds himself as bogged down as the recent bank holiday weather, he may also be regretting the decision to launch his “Ask the PM” service on YouTube. This allows users to post questions on any subject to Brown and his ministers, offering the government up as the kind of easy target that even John Terry would struggle to miss. The 180-odd videos that have been posted so far throw up some familiar themes: lack of affordable housing, more help for small businesses, and (perhaps unsurprisingly given this week’s protests) a lengthy rant about the evils of an oil-based economy.
Yet were the construction industry to post a video, it is unlikely that it would be quite so bleak. Here’s how it might go: “We’d just like to say how pleased we are to be part of the work that you are overseeing in the provision of new healthcare and education facilities as well as social housing. We hope your recent problems won’t discourage you from pressing ahead with these crucial programmes. Not that you’re alone in being under pressure right now. You may have heard some rather worrying things about us over the past month or so with regards to the Office of Fair Trading. We are doing everything we can to ensure that nothing like this happens in our industry again. We hope that our own short-term difficulties won’t get in the way of our longer-term aims of improving the built environment. Our question to you is: do you feel the same?”
Small regional contractor Wildgoose Construction in the east Midlands will certainly be hoping that the prime minister isn’t tempted into any further U-turns on government policy. Like many other small and medium-sized businesses across the UK, it has gambled on public spending continuing at the levels of the past few years. In recent weeks larger firms such as Kier and struggling housebuilder Persimmon have hitched their fortunes to the social housing bandwagon with the same hope.
This is a high-risk strategy as Treasury mandarins are increasingly nervous over government finances. The so-called “golden rule” on borrowing only to invest has already been breached by the recent £2.7bn payout to help haul the government out of its 10p tax-rate hole. The hope has to be that the government won’t be tempted to reign back on its capital spending programmes in health, education and housing in an attempt to keep a lid on inflation and its own debt burden.
Brown knows that his political fortunes are not so much waning as on the blink. The messages from all sides – not just YouTube – may be depressing but there is still a chance for him to recapture the formidable “iron chancellor” image. But more U-turns will never lead him in the right direction.
Stuart Macdonald, deputy editor