Like Macavity, PM was not there!

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Had the prime minister listened to some of his advisers, preparations for a general election this autumn would have been well under way by the time the Northern Rock bank started to subside.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

Had the prime minister listened to some of his advisers, preparations for a general election this autumn would have been well under way by the time the Northern Rock bank started to subside. And in that event the alarm in Downing Street in recent days would have been much greater and would have been accompanied by a pungent odour of burning brake rubber.

Heightened uncertainty has been generated about the fate of our economy in the wake of the “sub-prime” housing loans storm in the US. And that surely means now that “going to the country” in late October or November is right off Mr Brown's agenda. It is almost inconceivable that there will be a pre-election atmosphere at the Labour conference which opens in Bournemouth on Sunday. The prime minister would be wise, moreover, not to include teasing references to a 2007 or spring 2008 poll when he makes his big speech on Monday.

Indeed, he will be keeping his fingers crossed that the turbulence does not increase again over the next few days and that he doesn't have to address the conference (and through it, the nation) amid fears of a truly heavyweight financial crisis.

Ironically, just a few days before the Northern Rock's problems hit the headlines, people were asked the following question in a Populus/Times poll: “If Britain's economy were to face problems in the months or years ahead, who would you most trust to deal with it in the best interests on Britain?”

The overall result was 61pc for Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, and just 27pc for David Cameron and George Osborne. Among Labour supporters it was 92pc to 6pc for Brown/Darling, which is what one would expect. Of greater interest was the breakdown among Liberal Democrat voters, which was a win for the prime minister and chancellor by 67pc to 19pc over their Conservative shadows.

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Among Tory voters there was a preference for Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, but the margin - 71pc backing them and as many as 23pc Mr Brown and Mr Darling - might well have caused a few raised eyebrows. Another poll (by YouGov) at the weekend put Labour ahead of the Tories by five points (39pc to 34pc) and a question about the most impressive party leader produced a 39pc vote for Mr Brown and one of only 17pc for Mr Cameron. But in both cases the polling was before Northern Rock's foundations began to rock.

Voter responses to hypothetical economic difficulties are liable to be significantly if not radically different from answers given when such trouble seems to be knocking on the door or at least advancing up the street. So there will be much relief in Downing Street about the findings of polls in today's Times and Guardian.

The former shows considerable satisfaction with the government's response to the Northern Rock trauma, and - notwithstanding the queues seen outside the bank's branches - little public inclination to hit the panic button. The other shows Labour eight points ahead of the Tories, and David Cameron is now even less popular than Sir Menzies Campbell.

These findings should make the prime minister more inclined to pronounce on an issue on which he has been remarkably, yet rather predictably, reticent. As the winds gathered strength between Friday and Monday afternoon, Mr Brown kept his head down. There were words from his official spokesman, but until almost 5pm yesterday - when things were looking better - there was no press conference or interview in which he directly addressed the nation and sought in personal fashion to calm nerves.

Once again in a time of trouble, Mr Brown has been doing an impression of TS Eliot's mystery cat Macavity who was nowhere to be seen whenever ordure was hitting the fan.

This aspect of the prime minister's character has often been remarked upon - particularly by the Tories. And he appeared to be trying to answer this criticism when parts of the country were hit by floods and foot and mouth. In both instances he not merely gave an impression of great activity; he was also visible. Now, however, Macavity has returned - to do his disappearing trick and leave the nation looking at a largely empty stage.

Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat also kept disappearing and reappearing. But its most striking feature was its Tony Blair-like grin. There isn't even the faintest trace of that in Downing Street these days.

One consolation in all of this is that the proportion of the electorate that can name the chancellor of the exchequer as Alistair Darling has suddenly shot up.

He has occupied the post for almost three months, but has been doing so in quiet trademark fashion. He cannot have enjoyed being thrust into the spotlight in recent days, but seems to have kept calm.

Mr Darling also has a big speech to deliver at Bournemouth. But if we are at the beginning of the end of the turbulence - rather than just at the beginning - he will soon be able to readopt his customary lower profile. He might even be under some pressure to do so.

Mr Brown will be keen to take as much of the credit (if that's not an inappropriate expression in the circumstances) as he can if the threat of a major crisis has been contained and removed.

t From Macavity - the Mystery Cat, by TS Eliot

Macavity's a Mystery Cat: he's called the Hidden Paw -

For he's the master criminal who can defy the Law.

He's the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad's despair:

For when they reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!!

And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty's gone astray,

Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,

There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair -

But it's useless of investigate - Macavity's not there!

And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:

“It must have been Macavity!”- but he's a mile away.

You'll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,

Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

t ... BUT THERE FOR MCCANNS

It brings out the cynic in me when prime ministers and other top politicians start associating themselves with successful national sports teams - no danger of that this week for our rugby and cricket players - and other popular or well-known people outside the Westminster world.

But I have no trouble at all with the way in which Mr Brown is associating himself with the cause of Kate and Gerry McCann. Perhaps he can't really assist them at all. But his interest may help to stop them being tried in public - without formal charge - in such scandalous fashion, and it is to be applauded.

t One of the oddest descriptions of the Northern Rock drama was the comment in the Independent that those lining up outside one of the branches to withdraw money were showing “a touch of the Blitz spirit”. Really? One could argue almost the opposite. I had some understanding of the continuing apprehension by the bank's savers before the government announced its complete deposits guarantee on Monday evening. But some people were getting up at 3am yesterday to join or form queues again. It was akin to scenes in the fuel blockade of 2000 when some motorists with plenty in their tanks had to join a queue if they saw one. Don't panic! Don't panic! The Corporal Jones spirit has been too much in evidence this week. If people like this had been determining morale in the Blitz, we would most probably have lost the war.