A silencer may have been fitted on the starting gun, but no one in Westminster can doubt that the Gordon Brown leadership campaign is now fully up and running. Ministers are being telephoned and asked when their names can be released as supporters of the Chancellor. Geoff Hoon, still smarting from his demotion to Europe Minister, has found himself promoted to the Chancellor’s ‘campaign committee’. Jack Straw has been announced as its manager, with no idea whom he is supposed to fight.
It matters little; for now, these men are ornaments. The real Brown machine has been 13 years in the making, and remains focused on its single purpose: the elimination of any rival candidate. ‘They will have a grid,’ says one Whitehall source. ‘They’d have planned the Budget as a triumph, which would end all talk of a challenge to Gordon. But that hasn’t happened, so they’ve brought the grid forward.’ The hitch was Peter Mandelson, who last weekend said that a coronation would not be in the party’s best interests, and indirectly but clearly urged David Miliband to stand.
He may have now spent three years in exile as European Commissioner, but Mr Mandelson has lost none of his capacity to send the Chancellor into apoplexy. His suggestion that a new generation of Labour MPs choose their own leader — code for Mr Miliband — led the Brown team to start releasing names of its supporters, young, likeable Blairites. Their next task is to deal convincingly with Mr Miliband.
By my reckoning, the Environment Secretary has now pledged fealty to Mr Brown a dozen times (twice in the House of Commons on Tuesday). Still, it seems, this is not enough. Mr Brown’s allies are saying — charmingly — that they don’t want to put ‘a gun to his head’ and that he must come over voluntarily. But apart from walking down Downing Street and prostrating himself at the door of No. 11, it is hard to see what more Mr Miliband can do.
No matter how much Westminster craves an alternative, Mr Miliband just isn’t the man. Those who see him privately describe a politician enthusing about environment policy, rather than stroking his cat and mulling world domination. He has no public backers, no leadership team, no phone lines installed, not even the basic apparatus to run. He may be enjoying the attention. Like any ambitious politician, he would like to be party leader one day. But where is the surge of support to make it possible this time?
Charles Clarke remains unpredictable. A recent newspaper article quoted ‘friends of the former home secretary’ claiming that he might run; Mr Clarke later said that this could not be true, as he has no friends. He wanders mournfully around Westminster as if to prove the point, dining alone and chatting to doormen rather than fellow MPs between votes in the chamber. Even a kamikaze leadership bid needs the signatures of 45 Labour MPs, which he is unlikely to muster.
If the Brownites are doing their job properly, it will be difficult for this threshold to be crossed by any Cabinet minister. John Reid has, they believe, ruled himself out. He is tipped to stay at the Home Office — yet such rumours should be treated with utmost scepticism. If the speculation is to be believed, Mr Brown’s first Cabinet can be filled several times over, with four men (Mr Miliband, Mr Straw, Ed Balls and Alistair Darling) all named as possible Chancellor.
It is for this reason that Cabinet members are sceptical about Mr Brown’s recent charm offensive. It is clear he wants all their signatures on his nomination paper. ‘Then it will be ice-pick-through-the-head time,’ says one of those affected, who predicts Mr Brown will want to surround himself with young admirers.
Intriguingly, several of the younger Labour MPs who have signed up to the Brown campaign have the impression that he will not serve a full term. The Brownites laugh this off, saying he would not repeat Tony Blair’s worst mistake, but it is not an absurd contention. Would a 64-year-old Mr Brown really attempt to lead the party into its fifth term, having been at the top of British politics for 17 years? Free countries seldom indulge politicians for so long. There is a limit even to this politician’s stamina.
Yet the public seems to play no part at all in these calculations. Each new opinion poll shows the mood hardening against Mr Brown. But all prospective rivals — Milburn, Blunkett, Johnson, Reid, Byers — have been so successfully weakened by the Chancellor’s attack machine that there is no clear alternative. The only option for Labour MPs is to avert their eyes from the polls and pray that it will be all right on the night.
But there will be a series of almighty focus groups conducted on 3 May, the most important of which will be the elections to the Scottish Parliament. The scale of the rebellion is only now beginning to be appreciated in Westminster. Support for independence is no higher than it was a decade ago; it is an anti-Labour sentiment which has pushed voters towards the Scottish National Party. This, for Labour, would be a truly momentous defeat. Mr Brown’s assurance that he will play a pivotal role in the Scottish Labour campaign has only intensified the tartan intifada.
So on the morning of Friday 4 May Labour could wake up with a separatist party running Scotland and a proven vote-loser as Prime Minister-in-waiting. Those in doubt about Mr Brown’s electoral appeal should remember that he lives in a Liberal Democrat constituency — because last year his team lost the Dunfermline & West Fife by-election. To lose a seat is careless, but to lose a whole country — as he may do in May — will scarcely inspire confidence in his chances of winning an away match in England.
This explains why the Brown campaign team is moving now, three months before Mr Blair’s expected departure. If there is a huge wobble in Labour ranks after the Scottish election result, the dozens of MPs who stand to lose their seats may be minded to take matters into their own hands and march to the door of a rival candidate. The plan is that, by then, all such doors will be riddled with Brownite bullets, their occupants eliminated, and so many senior Labour figures publicly signed up to the Brown campaign that it is immune even to an electoral hurricane on 3 May. So what if the results portend eventual Labour defeat at the next general election? All that matters to the Brownites is to get their man — at last — into No. 10.
The Conservatives are looking on with bewildered amusement. A decade of opposition has conditioned the party into believing there must be method to Labour’s madness. Why would a party with an enviable supply of young talent choose a demonstrably unpopular control-freak who will press on into his sixties? Yet the closer you look, the more it becomes clear there is no secret plan. Weary of power, the Labour party has allowed itself to be bullied. And after ten years, it may now be ready to lose.