As I write this column, it is not clear whether, in the dying days of his campaign, Gordon Brown was able to rescue an already faltering general election fight – which then fell off the edge of a cliff after he finally revealed a small flash of his true personality, courtesy of a lapel microphone.
My best guess is that there will not be a last-minute reprieve and either Nick Clegg will find himself talking to David Cameron or Brown will need to step aside to allow Labour and the LibDems to reach some form of post-electoral agreement.
I am not shocked or even terribly disappointed by what Gordon Brown did in Rochdale, mainly because we have all been there at some stage in our lives. Many years ago, when working on a newspaper, I invited readers to send in their queries on capital gains tax to be answered by a chartered accountant.
One reader emailed me an incredibly detailed question, which was replied to at some length by the accountant. This was passed on to the reader who then emailed a list of supplementary questions, again dealt with by our guest expert.
I then received a third set of questions, which I forwarded to the accountant with a quick message, saying: “I know you’re probably getting fed up with this idiot, but before I finally tell him to sod off, can you just check whether there’s anything interesting here?”
My only mistake was in copying the “idiot” in on the email, who was not best pleased to find himself described in that way. I fear I lost a reader, probably not for the first time.
No, what really gets me about Gordon Brown is his inability to listen and respond to suggestions or criticisms from anyone outside his close coterie of advisers – and sometimes not even them.
His 13 years as Chancellor and as Prime Minister are full of examples where, given a choice between ill-advised changes or a refusal to make changes everyone else thought were necessary, Brown regularly went for the stupid option. To put it another way, given his evident lack of political and human empathy with the British public over the years, it is hardly surprising he and Labour lost many people’s votes years ago.
The question is whether the Tories will be any better. Set aside for a second issues such as immigration or whether tax and National Insurance should be raised or cut this year or next year.
These may be important matters but, deep down, most parties know there is not much, if anything, they can do to stop the flow of EU workers coming into the UK. Similarly, the overall scale of cuts demanded in public spending in the next few years, regardless of who is in office, dwarfs the £6bn or so the Conservatives aim to give to the public by abandoning the proposed NI increase.
It is a strange but true fact that the areas where any potential Treasury minister is likely to have the greatest effect is not over the central features of the UK economy and its slow recovery. That will happen, or otherwise, without regard to which party in office.
The key issues where new ministers will almost certainly seek to impose themselves is on soft targets, such as the FSA. It is easy to take a wrecking ball to what is already there, while patching together a new regulator out of the rubble gives consumers the illusion of being better protected.
What do the Tories want to do? We know George Osborne has threatened to take away responsibility for prudential regulation of the banking sector from the FSA and hand it back to the Bank of England, where it lay for decades. In turn, Osborne wants to pass on some of the Office of Fair Trading’s badly handled consumer credit responsibilities to the FSA and create a new consumer protection agency.
Now, there is nothing much wrong with the latter strategy. For many years now, the OFT’s work in this area has been open to criticism and it is hard to justify keeping things as they are but where there is a distinct danger of things going pear-shaped is over the wide reforms.
For a start, the bank’s supervisory responsibilities will only be expanded by moving over FSA staff who were previously seconded to that task in Canary Wharf. Ironically, many of them probably worked at Threadneedle Street 10 years ago, when the supervisory traffic travelled the other way.
It is a safe bet that effective regulation will be put on hold as an elaborate game of musical chairs exhausts itself over a period of several years. IFAs hoping for an easier life had better think again – the CPA is likely to want to prove its mettle by taking on the industry. If so, the RDR is only the start of it. Expect not just more rules and regulations but a far tougher oversight of firms, on a scale not seen hitherto.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org