You can tell we're just a few short months away from an election. There's a whiff of desperation in the air as the Government ponders the polls and fears for its future.
Anything is worth a try, isn't it? So it is that Gordon Brown appears on Piers Morgan's chat show to display his warm and cuddly side. And as the Labour Government edges toward the probable end of its 13-year tenure, its thoughts finally turn to taking some action to stem the tide of pub closures.
Many will have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief on Sunday upon discovering that John Healey had been appointed pubs minister. The news was conveyed exclusively through the pages of the News of the World, in a move aimed, no doubt, at currying favour with the beer-drinking masses who enjoy the UK's biggest circulation red-top. The news was released so obliquely that on Monday morning even the press spokespeople in Healey's department weren't sure whether it was true. Finally, just after lunchtime on Monday the news was finally confirmed officially with a press release.
The way this important announcement was handled by the Government would prompt the cynical among us to think that this is little more than a gimmick. The irony, of course, is that if the Government is serious about helping the pub it will need to roll back many of the burdensome and overbearing bits of legislation it has been responsible for. The appointment of John Healey to the job is the only thing that convinces me this is more than some practical joke at the expense of pubs.
Healey has been a consistent and loyal friend to the sector, prompting the setting up of the Community Pubs Inquiry, for example. Only last week a senior Whitehall lobbyist complained to me that licensing ministers pass through the job too quickly to understand the issues. Current licensing minister Gerry Sutcliffe has been too timid to truly fight the sector's corner, despite soothing words on occasion.
Shadow licensing minister Tobias Ellwood (in all likelihood our next licensing minister) seems devoid of sympathy for the plight of pubs if his performance at last autumn's Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers event in Birmingham is anything to go by. His thinking is clouded by the rhetoric of crackdown rather than ideas for practical help. Healey, by contrast, insists he will have a package of practical plans to help community pubs on the table within a few short weeks. Assuming that this means a few short weeks, Healey will have his plans in place by the start of March. That will leave him (and the Government) eight or nine weeks to carry them out before the expected election in early May.
The appointment of Healey is, of course, to be welcomed, but the time frame for action at the fag end of this Government is ridiculously short.