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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 9, 2009