Page last updated at 14:12 GMT, Friday, 18 April 2008 15:12 UK

Martha Kearney's week

By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

Gordon Brown and George Bush
The prime minister's trip was a break from problems back home

There are few things the prime minister enjoys more than a trip to the States both as a holiday destination and as a source of political inspiration.

Long before his fling with Gertrude Himmelfarb, there were the New Democrats: people like Robert Reich and Bob Shrum who were forging the ideas which made Bill Clinton electable.

It wasn't just Tony Blair who came under his spell. Gordon Brown was equally captivated. A key plank of the New Democrat platform was to be "tough on welfare".

New mantra

I filmed Brown in the States in 1991 at a time when he was looking into US welfare to work approaches so I was interested to see that he visited a New York scheme on this trip.

The same policy dilemma, the same route for solutions. US firms will be coming to Britain to launch schemes but it is still unclear how tough the government will be when it comes to withdrawing benefits.

Another famous New Democrat mantra was scrawled on a white board in an office in Little Rock. I saw James Carville's slogan when I went to interview him in the War Room.

Most [MPs] will have spent some of the recess out on the stump for the local elections in England and Wales, getting an earful from voters

Gordon Brown's new mantra is that "Every effort of mine, every day that I wake up, is about keeping this economy moving forward, keeping stability and keeping growth."

It has a Frank Capra air of old fashioned morality about it. We will get more details next week about his plan to exchange banks' riskier debt for sounder government funds.

The prime minister was able to use his US trip to take a moral stand on Zimbabwe with his talk of a "stolen election".

Short respite

Never mind that pretty well everyone there was more interested in the Pope's visit. The prime minister was able to meet all three presidential candidates in a contest which he has been following very closely.

It is easy to understand why studying switch voters in Scranton, Pa. would be more appealing than looking at canvas returns from Swindon.

The allure of the world stage beats the messy world of domestic politics any time which is why so many prime ministers become seduced by it.

I think people are still giving the government the benefit of the doubt and they'll certainly be voting on local issues - at least I'm praying they will be
David Blunkett

This American trip is a short respite from all the problems besetting Gordon Brown which are likely to get worse when MPs return to Parliament on Monday.

Most will have spent some of the recess out on the stump for the local elections in England and Wales, getting an earful from voters. That's what may have happened to Angela Smith, the parliamentary aide who's had a wobble about resigning over the abolition of the 10p tax band.

On Tuesday we heard from two Labour MPs who are very worried about the policy. David Blunkett, the former home secretary, told us that the statistics produced by the Treasury were incorrect, that people have lost out in far larger numbers than were ever predicted.

'Showmanship qualities'

He wants the government to give them a one off rebate or at least to signal that there will be one in the autumn pre-Budget report. So is tax playing a part in the local elections?

He said: "I think people are still giving the government the benefit of the doubt and they'll certainly be voting on local issues - at least I'm praying they will be."

Another MP who is worried about the elections is Des Turner, the MP for Brighton Kemptown, a marginal seat.

George Osborne
George Osborne is also a keen follower of American politics

He said that he was at a loss to understand how the 10p tax policy had happened. He also expressed wider concerns about Gordon Brown's leadership and admitted that he felt disappointed.

"In some respects I have to say I do. He started out with a lovely sort of feeling of collegiality and it really felt good.

"But since the non-election, he does seem to have withdrawn, talking to his inner circle, rather than to others. Gordon is in fact, when he gets going, a very good adjudicator but he doesn't have the showmanship qualities that Tony Blair had."

All of this is grist to the Conservatives' mill and it is not surprising that they are doing well in the polls at the moment.

But they have questions to answer too. The shadow chancellor George Osborne came on the programme on Monday.

His party will be voting against the abolition of the 10p tax band but he won't say whether they will restore it at an estimated cost of 7bn. That, according to George Osborne, will have to wait until nearer the general election.

But it leaves the Tories open to the criticism that they are acting more like an opposition than a government in waiting.

Mr Osborne too has been to Washington. Just like that previous shadow chancellor, he is an aficionado of American politics.

Barely a speech of his (or David Cameron's) goes without the criticism of Gordon Brown "he didn't fix the roof while the sun was shining", a phrase right out of the American political lexicon.

But as one of our Radio Four sticklers might put it, don't we say 'mend the roof' in this country?

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