Tuesday 8 July 2008

Setting the record straight

Willy Poole’s ample frame always made me think of him more as a bulwark than a lightning conductor, but he filled the latter role to perfection in Voice of the North.

By grabbing the attention of the letter writing public, he seemed to enable the likes of me to make occasional unchecked assertions without obvious comeback. Now his provocative voice has been stilled, and readers have lost no time in challenging my claim that Gordon Brown is the most reviled Prime Minister in living memory.

I appreciate that Margaret Thatcher will always have a very special place in the hearts of those living in the former coalfields of Northumberland and Durham. However, I was relying on a recent opinion poll which found that Mr Brown had achieved a satisfaction rating even lower than that of John Major, who was I thought by common consent the most useless and unpopular Prime Minister of the post-war era.

Since then, a “poll of polls” in The Independent of 3 July has reached the more balanced conclusion that “The Prime Minister's popularity rating is worse than those of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, almost as poor as Baroness Thatcher's in 1990 and not much better than Mr Major's.” I am happy to set the record straight, while feeling that it must take a pretty special talent to get close in just one year to the Marianas Trench of unpopularity that it took the Blessed Margaret 11 years of humourless handbagging to dig for herself.

This is not a party political column, incidentally, as I found out over lunch last week when I was disowned by a Conservative prospective Parliamentary candidate for “being to the right of Genghis Khan” and insufficiently appreciative of “Dave”. That probably explains why nearly everyone who expresses agreement with my views starts their second sentence with the mantra “I’m not a racist, but …”

I can’t wait to introduce them all to my Iranian girlfriend. No kidding.

Another leader currently riding the sharp downward stretch of the popularity roller coaster is Sir Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer, who has irritated me for some time with his claims that M&S can help to save the planet with its eco-friendly Plan A, “because there is no Plan B”. There is always a Plan B, and in M&S’s case it is a blindingly obvious one: consume less.

Sadly for Sir Stuart, his customers seem to have gone for Plan B in a big way, to judge from last week’s shock profit warning. His food business has suffered particularly badly, at a time when cut-price rivals are booming.

This is no doubt mainly down to increasing price consciousness as the credit crunch bites. But there is another factor peculiar to M&S. As part of their fight for the future of humanity, they recently became the first major food retailer to ban free plastic bags from their checkouts. So when I called at their Kingston Park branch on my way home from London last week, intent on using the reward vouchers from my M&S credit card, I ended up paying 20p for two “bags for life” which were not quite big enough to accommodate my shopping. Hence I came home with two 49p grapefruit rather than the three I had paid for.

A small enough sacrifice to make to save the Earth from choking on unwanted plastic before it burns to a crisp, perhaps. But enough to make me think that food shopping at M&S is more trouble than it is worth, and resolve not to do it again.

It’s the accumulation of trivial, individual reactions like this that leads both to corporate profit warnings, and to Prime Ministers plumbing new depths of unpopularity. I’m prepared to wager my next batch of M&S reward vouchers that Mr Brown has that post-war record within his grasp.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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