A fortnight ago, I was invited along to a dinner with John Reid in the private room of a London hotel. It sounded wonderfully conspiratorial, arranged at just a few hours’ notice at a time when speculation about the Labour party leadership was rife. I bounded in to find about a dozen other journalists and the most unwelcome guest of all: an overhead projector at the top of the table. We had been summoned to hear about the Home Office reorganisation he had announced that day.
All remarks that night were off the record, as is customary. But it would betray no confidences to say that Mr Reid rather disappointed those who had been hoping for a hint that he was about to knife Gordon Brown. His position in private seemed depressingly similar to his public proclamation that he will not say a thing about the leadership until Tony Blair quits. Yet now once again he is being looked to by those MPs who are increasingly desperate for a challenge to Mr Brown.
His task this time is apparently to put steel into the spine of David Miliband and back him as a leadership candidate. But should the 41-year-old Environment Secretary decide he is too young for a kamikaze mission, has Mr Reid now decided to run himself? Absolutely not, say his aides, he remains in a position of proud indecision. Even so, to the anyone-but-Brown camp, this talk of a challenge — any challenge — is too good not to be true.
The case for a leadership contest has grown even more compelling over the Easter recess. Polls show that Mr Brown is now blamed by most voters for the pensions crisis, with the over-50s (those most likely to vote) particularly resentful. It is an opinion which is unlikely to change. A YouGov/Sunday Times poll found that just 27 per cent of all voters consider him fit for No. 10. It is the kind of opprobrium usually reserved for long-serving and detested prime ministers.
All this comes just in time for the 3 May local elections, in which Labour is expected to lose 500 local government seats across England. According to Professors Rallings and Thrasher of Plymouth University, this would be its weakest showing in local government for 50 years. Should the Scottish Parliament be lost to the Nationalists, the overall result would be nothing short of calamitous. When Mr Blair resigns, as he is expected to do the following week, there is a clear logic for Labour to examine all its leadership options.
Yet logic is a fairly blunt tool when seeking to predict the actions of the Labour party. Bookmakers have joined those attempting to ‘seduce’ Mr Miliband (as he puts it), cutting the odds on him winning from 15-1 to 5-1 in the last month. But this reckons without Labour’s tripartite electoral college. A third of the votes go to the trades unions, whose only dilemma is whether to choose Mr Brown or a lunatic alternative such as John McDonnell. Next come Labour parliamentarians — and the Brown team now believe they have 200 of the party’s 352 MPs on board. Finally there are party members, who still believe, by some margin, that Mr Brown is their best option.
Labour supporters are becoming the political equivalent of Millwall fans: the worse the Chancellor’s predicament becomes, the more they rally around him. Last weekend, a poll showed Labour voters prefer the embattled Mr Brown to Mr Miliband by a factor of five to one. Support for Mr Miliband is concentrated among those intending to vote Conservative at the next election: not much use to him at this stage. Unless a candidate can overturn these dynamics, Mr Brown’s election is inevitable.
This is why comparisons with the Conservatives’ leadership contest are invalid: the two tribes are psychologically different. The Tories are free-marketers, able to steer away from trouble. They were able to ‘sell’ Davis and ‘buy’ Cameron during that extraordinary 2005 party conference in Blackpool. Labour members, by contrast, tend to have faith in long-term plans and making do with what is meted out to them. They feel fated to be led by Mr Brown, for better or for worse.
This indifference may dismay Mr Reid and those whose mission has been to save the Labour party from itself. But its leadership election rules have left it wide open to the type of stitch-up which has now taken place. In Westminster, MPs who should be Mr Miliband’s natural allies are being well looked after by the Brown camp — and privately explaining that dire polls are only to be expected at the dog-end of the Blair premiership. It’s a storm, they say, that will pass.
So what, then, is Mr Reid playing at? He knows Labour’s electoral dynamics better than anyone — yet is behaving as if the field is wide open. He occasionally teases Mr Brown in Cabinet. ‘Here comes the Home Secretary,’ he said once, after Mr Brown had made a characteristically graceless incursion into the field of law and order. During the Home Office shake-up, he did not plead for the Chancellor’s approval — but instead focused his mind by asking how he would feel if the Treasury’s indecision was blamed for a successful terrorist attack.
If Mr Reid’s goal is to discomfit Mr Brown, then it appears to be working. Olive branches are being reluctantly thrown out of the Treasury, to suggest Mr Brown is willing to behave himself and share power. Geoff Hoon, the Europe minister, is being tipped as the new chief whip. The Chancellor’s more unpopular henchmen, such as Nick Brown, are being cut out of the picture. Mr Miliband is being offered an expanded empire, with energy linked to environment.
Even the Chancellorship is on the cards for Mr Miliband — or, at any rate, the status of being de facto Number Two. ‘A Brown– Miliband team would look impressive against a lightweight Cameron–Osborne team,’ one Brown-supporting minister tells me. ‘And David is a man of integrity. He’ll do what’s best for the party, and he’ll be in Cabinet whether or not he runs. But would he, or any other serious candidate, really stand to lose?’
Letting that question hang in the air — as Mr Reid is deliberately doing — is proving a form of water torture for Mr Brown. His aides grumble darkly about ‘disunity’ and point to the futility of a leadership challenge — yet are steadily making more concessions. And that may well be the goal: to force the Chancellor to share power, perhaps with Mr Reid in the Home Office and Mr Miliband in a green super-ministry. And to make the Chancellor realise that to win the next general election, he’ll need all the help he can get.