The plotters mean business. But the Gordonator will survive

In a disastrous week for the PM, Matthew d’Ancona reveals the plot to mount a leadership challenge after the June elections. But Brown is absolutely determined to cling to power; and Labour has shabby psychological reasons for keeping him where he is

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

In a disastrous week for the PM, Matthew d’Ancona reveals the plot to mount a leadership challenge after the June elections. But Brown is absolutely determined to cling to power; and Labour has shabby psychological reasons for keeping him where he is

Here is the plan: if the local and European elections on 4 June are terrible for Labour, a former Cabinet minister — probably Charles Clarke — will put himself forward as a candidate for the party leadership. Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and others will urge their parliamentary colleagues to face realities; mayhem, naturally, will ensue.

To trigger a formal challenge to Gordon Brown, the candidate will need the backing of 20 per cent of Labour MPs: 70 names. None of the plotters expects to pull that off. ‘But let’s say we got 30 or so MPs signing a letter to Gordon,’ one says. ‘Then his position would be almost untenable. People in the Cabinet would get restless and test the water, too.’

There is no serious expectation among the putsch planners that Mr Clarke (assuming he is the unlucky canary sent down the coalmine) will be the next Labour leader. The logic is otherwise: that someone must make a sacrificial stand in June to break the leadership logjam, open up the contest to a ‘unity candidate’ like Alan Johnson, and prevent catastrophe for Labour in the general election next year.

Well, it could all go like clockwork, I suppose. But not even the plotters themselves are certain that it would. Indeed, they recognise that the whole plan, if enacted next month, could backfire horribly, branding them and their ideas as treacherous, strengthening the Prime Minister’s grip on the top job, and inadvertently accelerating the party’s ideological drift to the left.

What is certain is that the current round of leadership fever will get worse, and will not be quashed by a few prime ministerial speeches or a snap reshuffle. The Commons vote on the Royal Mail, the disclosure of MPs’ expenses over the summer and the June elections — ‘Gordon’s Super-Thursday’ as it was optimistically nicknamed — will see to that. Imagine, for instance, that the BNP does well on 4 June. ‘Then even Old Labour would think long and hard,’ according to one senior figure. ‘Letting in prats from Ukip is one thing — but giving a free pass to fascists is quite another.’

The common point of reference in all such conversations is the fall of Damian McBride and the scandal of the smear emails. There have been many dark hours in Brown’s premiership: the election-that-never-was, the 10p tax debacle, by-election disasters, Jacqui Smith’s thoroughness in filing for expenses, the Commons defeat over the Gurkhas, the Prime Minister’s own YouTube horror. But the McBride affair broke this government’s spine, ending once and for all its claim to clasp the ‘moral compass’ and lifting the veil on a regime whose innermost elite appeared to be both mad and bad. ‘Damian’s fall gave us permission to speak out,’ says one malcontent.

Saul Bellow called it ‘crisis chatter’: the febrile gossip and speculation that becomes more and more intense, if not more substantial, at times of high anxiety. In the last week, it has been fuelled by a handful of extraordinary interventions that have shifted the terms of trade.


Alan Johnson may yet be the first person to become Labour leader by going on television and radio repeatedly to deny that he is either capable of the job or interested in it. Imagine him in the Palace, finally kissing hands: ‘Very kind of you, your Maj, but really — I don’t know how often I have to say it — I’m the wrong man for the job… Not really up to it… Oh, all right, then’ etc. This weekend the Health Secretary made it kittenishly clear that his denials are to be taken with a pillar of salt. ‘I am not saying there would be no circumstances,’ declared the nation’s favourite ex-postman. I bet you aren’t, Alan.

Harriet Harman, meanwhile, was forced to deny a story in Monday’s Telegraph that she was up for the top job with a statement that ‘there are no circumstances …I do not want to be Prime Minister.’ In the words of one Cabinet colleague: ‘This was a rare moment of self-reflecting thought and common sense by Harriet.’

Most remarkable of all, however, was the piece by Hazel Blears in the Observer, deploring ‘the government’s lamentable failure to get our message across’, while quipping: ‘YouTube if you want to’. This rather deft echo of the Iron Lady did not go down well with the Prime Minister, for obvious reasons. According to one senior minister who admires Ms Blears: ‘Look, Hazel is putting down a marker, that’s all, developing a brand. Was it ill-judged? Yes. But she is going to have to take risks if she wants to be a candidate.’ Or what is left of her after the PM and his spin doctors have exacted their revenge.

Brown’s leadership is one of the oddest phenomena in Labour’s history. In 2007, the party could not, or dared not, muster sufficient enthusiasm for another candidate to challenge Gordon as Tony Blair’s successor. Because there was a vacancy, such a candidate would only have required the backing of 12.5 per cent of the PLP — 44 signatures — to get formally into the running and to trigger a full-blown contest.

Mr Byers scurried around with his notebook and collected 72 names who agreed there should be at least a two-horse race and that Brown should not win by default. The trouble was that the 72 could not gather behind one person. Hence, 38 MPs would have backed John Reid (six short of the threshold) as Blair’s successor and 24 would have done the same for David Miliband, with other potential candidates picking up a handful of backers here and there.

But there was no collective energy behind the call for a leadership battle: in the end, the party was gripped only by feverish indecision and stultified by infirmity of purpose. Brown therefore became the first Labour leader since George Lansbury in 1932 to be crowned rather than elected in a contest. (There are two technical exceptions: George Brown and Margaret Beckett held the office by succession, but they did so very briefly and only because of the deaths of their respective predecessors.) He also became the first Prime Minister since Eden not to have faced a serious challenger.

Yet — after a brief honeymoon, ended by the election-that-never-was — the party began to mutter and grumble, as though Gordon had been forced upon them. Last summer, David Miliband ignited a firestorm with a Guardian article in which he called for a ‘radical new phase’ in New Labour’s development and conspicuously failed to mention the PM (a mistake the Foreign Secretary does not repeat in his elegant attack on William Hague on page 18: Kremlinologists take note).

When Siobhain McDonagh resigned as a junior whip in September, calling for a leadership contest to ‘clear the air’, the crisis chatter became deafening — and, crucially, the contagion spread to the Cabinet. Senior ministers such as Jack Straw, John Hutton, James Purnell and Geoff Hoon declined to attack the rebels, criticising only their ‘timing’, and used language to defend the PM that was breathtakingly provisional and mealy-mouthed.

As Margaret Thatcher can attest, when you lose the Cabinet, you lose the leadership. Or so it had proved in the past. Yet — somehow — Gordon toughed it out. One of his closest aides told me recently that he had known his boss would survive as their car pulled up to the party conference in Manchester: ‘You could see it in people’s faces, they were wishing him well. I knew he would be okay then.’

I think he will survive again, e
ven if the results on 4 June are as bad for Labour as the party’s strategists fear. Why? First, and most obviously, because he is still the best politician in the Cabinet, a master of the political arts who continues to inspire a measure of fear in most of his colleagues. They have seen the road-kill across Whitehall, the remains of ministers who have dared to cross Gordon or build themselves up as prospective rivals. Anyone who takes on Brown, even now — perhaps especially now — has to assume that it could easily be a suicide mission. ‘The respect has gone,’ says one Cabinet member. ‘But not the fear.’

Justifiably, in my view: for, whatever his shortcomings, Brown is unquestionably tough, brutally so, stubborn far beyond the capacity of his rivals. In his refusal to give up what must be an increasingly miserable and thankless job, he reminds me of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. ‘Listen, and understand,’ says a character in the first movie. ‘That Terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.’ Remind you of anyone? Brown has recently been joshing with acquaintances that he is ‘human too’. But all cyborgs say that: especially the unstoppable ones sent back from the future to assassinate their enemies.

Who dares stop the Gordonator? But who, in fact, truly wants to? Here’s the rub. Because, for all the mutinous talk, the positioning, the plotting, there is still a shame-faced pact between Brown and his party. In September 2006, as Blair announced he would leave Number 10 before the 2007 Labour conference, I predicted in these pages that the party would be plunged into civil war. The only question was when.

Three and half years on, I stand by that prediction. The civil war has not broken out because its potential scale and bloodiness are too daunting for the party. Behind the bubbling war of personalities — chirpy Hazel versus genial Alan versus various Eds — lurks a much more toxic conflict about trajectory and ideological mission.

For 13 years, Blair dominated British politics, let alone the narrower landscape of his party. His influence reverberates still, not least in the Blairesque person of David Cameron and the symbolism of Peter Mandelson’s return to the Cabinet — effectively on secondment from Team Blair. The former PM, I gather, is now devoting more and more time behind the scenes to securing the new European presidency which could conceivably be his by January if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified this year. Blair has made powerfully clear to the plotters that he wants nothing to do with their schemes and conspiracies — and does not want to be dragged into it in any way: Not In My Name, so to speak.

But — whether he likes it or not — his name will be at the heart of any battle for the soul of the party. Should the party junk Blairism once and for all as an electoral ploy whose time is past? Or should it rejuvenate New Labour, pressing ever harder for public sector reform at a time when the public finances are already horribly squeezed? At present, the trend within the movement is in the other direction: towards ever greater statism, more public debt, taxation to punish the rich rather than to raise revenue. The recession has encouraged a primitive neo-Keynesianism in Labour’s ranks, the crude renunciation of wicked capitalism and the ludicrous claim that Blairism was only a detour on the road to the socialist Jerusalem.

The point is: the party has not yet been forced fully and systematically to confront these questions. They have been, in the language of Labour conferences, ‘remitted’ to a later date. The closest the party has come to a probing and honest debate on its future post-Blair was the race two years ago for the deputy leadership, which was a pretty uninspiring business (from which Ms Harman emerged triumphant). In truth, it suited Labour psychologically to submit in 2007 to what amounted to monarchical succession, just as — in the end — it suited Labour last year to stick with Mr Brown.

His rise to the leadership by acclamation and his survival in the top job have excused the party the philosophical inquest it knows it must sooner or later conduct but which it would much rather postpone. A horrible fork in the road lies ahead. Labour knows it must decide eventually. But — for now — the slab-like obstacle of the Prime Minister stands between the party and the moment of decision.

For Brown keeps the really searching questions about Labour’s future identity at bay. And they are indeed huge and forbidding questions. Which is why, for all the sound and fury we can expect over the summer, the PM will still survive and fight the general election; and why, if Gordon did not exist, his party would have to invent him.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • wonderfulforhisage

    Mark my words, when the balloon eventually goes up Anthony Aloysius Blair will be there or there abouts with Mandy Pandy and Ali pulling his strings.

    Government of National Unity anyone?

  • BrianSJ

    The Labour party has changed from being the party of hardworkingfamilies to being the party of the State. This puts the Conservatives as the party of enterprise and the private citizen and gives some truth to some of Brown’s dividing lines.
    I am not sure that they meant to become the party of the State, and I didn’t get the impression that New Labour set out to do that, but that is where they are. I do get the impression that Brown is comfortable with being Honecker.

  • Major Plonquer

    Sorry, but I don’t agree with a word of this – largely because I don’t understand any of it. Pity, because little Matthew is normally such a good writer (he says without a hint of patronisation).

    The truth is the entire concept of left wing politics was dead and buried 20 years ago – as exemplified by the recently late Jack Kemp’s description of socialism as being ‘debunked and defunct’. So what’s changed? Why are now facing this Government of the Living Dead?

    The UK stupiidly elected another leftist government (‘but that Mr Blair has such a nice smile’). Result? Country bust. Again.

    The problem is we are not discussing the right issue. Like Hayak and others pointed out in the 70s we are are not discussing whether or not we want socialism. We’re discussing what colour it should be.

    No. No. No. No more socialism. Lets just lance the boil.

    How? That is the REAL question we should be asking.

    Blair got it right – education, education, education. But then he and his cronies set about subverting the education system so the next generation would be dumb and insecure enough to vote for socialism.

    We first need to liberate the education system from government – and I’m afraid Gove doesn’t go nearly far enough. Young people need to be freed so they can make positive contributions to the government system of the future and not just be leftist-borg who can be counted on to vote for any monkey with a red rosette.

    The socialsist have a ‘global vision’. Unfortunately we libertarians can never have such a vision because it in itself would subvert our own beliefs about the freedom of the individual.

    Ominously, the only way out of this mess is what can only be described as ‘libertarian collectivism’. Spin, in other words, but on a MUCH higher plane than Campbell, Mandelson and McDirtybastard.

    Modern media – including the internet – is an invention of libertarians. Even the architecture of the internet is designed to be anti-collectivist. The internet is the most anti-left invention in history. and we should apply it to better purpose.

    To be honest, emigration to Australia would be a really good idea if I hadn’t done it years ago. Oh, well. Back to the beach then.

    You couldn’t make this up.

  • David Short

    Major, the country did not really elect this government. Fewer than 23 per cent of the electorate voted for it.

  • Steve.W

    As the trade unions bankroll Nulabour how can you stop –

    “the party’s ideological drift to the left.”

    Only, it would seem, by Nulabour getting ‘new money’.

  • seb

    Blair, you say, is running about securing his President of Europe job? Good thing there’s no hint of democracy involved, then. Wouldn’t want the EU to blemish its record in that department. Would forelock tugging on the part of Tone’s subjects be in order should any of us have the privilege of being presented to this vacuous ninny at his court?

  • EyeSee

    You get the impression, reading this article, that Matt has made some clear observations on the state of Britain, accidentally. The Labour party and Cameron are obsessed with the ins and outs of the politics, the personalities because they assume MP’s are supremely important people. They can’t see it any other way. Well, hello! There’s a recession on! The people elected their MP’s on an age old notion that they were to steer the good ship UK through troubled waters and calm, not fret about who’s said nasty things about whom. Matt witters on about his lost love, Tony and some imaginary force known as Blairism. Stubbing his toe once again on the seemingly invisible (as in Emperors clothes invisible) Matt seems to think Gordon was not running things from the outset. Look at all Labour’s failures in 12 years (ie their entire output) and how can you account for them? Easy. Blair wanted to be a superstar (luckily he has a very active imagination) and just talked hot air. Brown had the money in his greedy little hand and drove policy from the hate in his heart. He reintroduced class war as his only active pursuit, a nation splitting piece of destructive cant. Question any in New Labour and it is not Blairism that you see, it is just a relentless string of MP’s who are not on top of their brief, never ask a question in Parliament, don’t vote and talk absolute rubbish. However, examine their expenses claims and they are ruthlessly efficient and know every wheeze and loophole. Blair was the snake oil salesman whilst Brown is sheer malevolence, but they are from the same disgusting, pompous, arrogant, grubbing, self possessed mould and they have been a cancer in this land. This recession was started by the stupidity of the womanising Clinton and was taken up by the serially stupid Brown, whilst Blair did the grinning. And worst of all, the thing that really sticks in my craw, is the accusation the air-headed left-liberals spout about Thatcher bringing about the ‘Me’ generation. In fact, that had to wait for Blair who said endlessly that you should think of yourself first, because you are important. A mantra he very cleared lived to the full himself. And from that we have the anarchy on the streets with drunked, but ’empowered with the knowledge of his own importance’ lout. You see it in the over-promoted, New Labour style incompetence that is now common in senior industry figures, not least bankers. Blair led a nation into immorality and Brown was busy burning banknotes, supporting his madcap belief in his own genius and the benefits for all of a Soviet style totalitarian state, as long as he runs it. And the Tories promise more of the same, if we would only vote for them. Cameron IS responsible for the rise of the BNP, because he refuses to serve the people of Britain, merely seeking enough votes so he can have a go in the big chair. Just for his CV you understand. No-one works for you in Government anymore. Perish the thought!

  • Stalin MacSporran

    Re the European presidency, the Czechs have craftilty said they aren’t going to pass it until after the UK elections. This is because the likely winners, the Tories, have said they’ll put it to a referendum. So mo Lisbon constitution = no European presidency = no sinecure for Bliar.

    Someone on PB.com put it very well the other day about Brown. His twqin beliefs have only ever been tax and spend and that the Tories cause recessions. Now that he has personally caused epic failure in both areas, his political career is over because he has nothing to say. He’s clinging to the job because he can and because the cabinet is too sh1te to get him out.

    Labour will be out of office for 4 terms and if and when they come back – assuming they don’t go bust first – they’ll be an 80s-style Conservative party. They’ll have to be.

  • shark

    An entire article about the weary, dreary colour of Brown. Practically the entire nation would like to blot this fellow out once and for all and paint up some nice new bright colours to cheer us all up and here d’Ancona is wittering on about how Brown is likely to survive because idiots can no longer think straight anymore.

    Mr. Brown…..to hell with all your devious machinations to keep yourself on the political stage at all costs.

    The people, real British people detest you. Go away and make it snappy.

  • David

    When the people in grey boiler-suits arrive, all Brown has to do is threaten to call a snap election – end of problem, until May ’09 that is, when they are all sacked.

  • robert

    One question:
    on what basis do you people living in the comfortable Westminster bubble decree that Alan Johnson, of all people, is either ‘genial’ or still worse ‘popular’?
    This simple fact is enough to cast doubt on your entire pseudo-analysis (you “stand by” a prediction made more than 3 years ago that still has not come to pass?).
    Why can’t you opinion spouters EVER produce the one simple component of any successful argument: evidence?

  • Andy Carpark

    Robert – I sent a perfectly polite comment along similar lines yesterday which was inexplicably incinerated by a faceless moderator.

    The meat of it was as follows. We can prove mathematically that all planetary alignments will eventually take place but cannot predict when any given one will occur.

    Mr D’Ancona’s three year old prediction is comparably valueless and indicates the stock in trade of most of the commentariat.

  • Ian C

    The hard truth the Labour party have to face – both now or after the June elections – is that to leave Brown in place, because the fear is still there, is part of the longest political party suicide notes in British political history. And the most spineless.

    If they do not remove him – or at least try very publicly this summer – they are toast as a political party. A consequence the country will be very well able to live with…… Amen.

  • John Walter

    Matt, you take a long time to state the obvious. Nobody wants the job. The turnout at the election will be miserably small. and I’ll tell you why. Nobody really wants Cameron either,direct or indirect. I for one can’t shake the image of Cam as a sixth form prefect that everyone loved to hate because he continually sucked up to the beak. He’s a chinless wonder.
    Between that and old quiver lip, we’re doomed.

  • factoidman

    Great article, mate.

    Just wanted to correct the confused Terminator reference.

    The dialogue (more or less accurate) comes from Terminator 2 and is actually spoken by Arnie’s character describing the general character of the T-1000 robot (the liquid metal guy who looks like Tin Tin’s dad) and not the first Terminator played by Arnie.

    Otherwise he’d be describing himself wouldn’t he?

    Does that undermine the whole article? Course not.

    But it does beg the question, is Gordon the clapped out old Arnie Terminator – or the wicked awesome T-1000?

    On second thought I think we already know the answer…

  • Jon Livesey

    I’m afraid that I think this article is too clever by half. No-one can really predict internal party politics reliably; it is as likely to surprise you as the Stock Market.

    About the only thing I agree with here is that Gordon has some “something” otherwise he would not be surviving, so far, as PM. What that something is, whether it is a secret talent, or the negatives of some nasty snaps, I couldn’t say.

    However, I think that the “something” is gradually dwindling away and being replaced by nothing more fancy than the notion that it is a bit too close to the next election to do anything today. If so, that suggests that it is Brown’s ouster that has been “remitted” and not some epic struggle for Labour’s soul.

    And if it has been remitted, then Brown leads the Party into the next election, BNP or no BNP. A BNP success – and it is startling how easily we accept this possibility these day, isn’t it? – can be spun just as easily as an argument for continuing with a safe pair of hands as it can be used to argue for a change.

    I am afraid that I no longer believe that Labour has anything so grand as a soul to struggle over. I think it did have one as late as Attlee, but since that time Labour has gradually been taken over by timeservers and opportunists who care only for one thing – being elected, no matter what it takes.

    These people won’t debate Labour’s soul after the election; they will turn on one another like rats, struggling to own the wreck of Labour.

    In a year we will be reading how “honorable” it will be for Brown to resign the day after an election defeat, and we will be comparing him to John Major, although Major actually was honorable, while Brown will simply be jumping before he is pushed.

  • Minnie Ovens

    In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is King