There is conspiring in the corridors once again in Westminster. Who could replace Gordon, they ask. Labour’s problem is that the young pretenders are too young and the idea of caretaker leader seems slightly ridiculous, it would look absurd for the government to change Prime Minister twice in the same Parliament. So, Brown will solider on while the battle of succession rages just beneath the surface.
After ten tedious years of firm party discipline, life is finally returning to the corridors of the House of Commons. A lobby journalist on patrol can once again gather intelligence, whether it be from ministers colluding behind the Speaker’s chair or clusters of Labour MPs holding impromptu crisis meetings. Two themes dominate: one is the scale of the disaster (or ‘how bad is it, on a scale of ten?’ as one Cabinet member has taken to asking). The other is whether Gordon Brown will be around long enough to fight the next general election.
That such a question should be asked is, in itself, fatal for the Prime Minister’s authority. He might just have survived the avalanche of disasters which have befallen him in recent weeks — but not a new police investigation into Labour party funding. His defence — ignorance — hardly inspires confidence. Mr Brown’s aides talk optimistically about how Labour recovered quickly in the polls after the 2000 fuel protest. But even they know what the true odds are for this Prime Minister who sold himself as dull but competent, and is now seen merely as dull.
Labour MPs can also guess and wait. If the latest opinion polls were translated into a general election result, at least 110 of them would lose their seats. Such a prospect tends to focus minds. These doomed MPs are usually the ones pulling each other to the side in the Commons, often seeking out Cabinet members in similar positions (Jacqui Smith and Ruth Kelly). But for all the panic and head-shaking, there is a question none can answer. If Mr Brown will not lead Labour to the next election, who will?
Two battles are being discussed. One is being fought by the younger generation: David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, versus Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary. The latter regards himself as a potential Prime Minister (having authored most of Mr Brown’s better ideas for the last decade) and has concluded it is never too early to start destabilising his most likely rival. He is regarded as the source of recent reports alleging serious tension between No. 10 and Mr Miliband. Their enmity is now firmly established.
Mr Miliband, however, is making a decent fist of destabilising himself without anyone’s help. He misjudged the European Union treaty debate, has few friends in the PLP, and at 42 he seems more uneasy in this great office of state than David Owen did when he achieved the same high office aged 38. Many believe that Mr Balls, 40, wanted an early general election to ensure Mr Miliband could be demoted in an ensuing Cabinet reshuffle.
But neither looks ready for the top job. The idea of either as party leader triggers loud guffaws on Labour’s backbench. All of this means that the internal discontent against Mr Brown lacks focus. Until there is a plausible alternative candidate, there can be no putsch by the young. The mutiny is — as Harold Wilson once said — a shiver with no spine to run down. To use the analogy of the mid-1990s — a period of growing resonance in late 2007 — Labour has no one to play Michael Portillo to Mr Brown’s John Major.
Another ‘After Gordon’ scenario involves a ‘caretaker candidate’ who would occupy No. 10 for a year or so while the party looks for a long-term leader and gives younger candidates time to grow. The Australian elections have just shown how Kevin Rudd converted his leadership honeymoon into an election victory, becoming Prime Minister in his first year at the helm of his party. Labour, too, may find a bolt from the red. But who would be the ‘greybeard’ keeping this prospective leader’s seat warm?
One can only imagine the dismay of Alan Johnson, Health Secretary, when he heard his name being touted for this ‘caretaker’ role last week. This means he is a dead man. The team around Gordon Brown may lack competence when it comes to running the country, but they are still the best in the business when it comes to destroying potential rivals. Mr Johnson used Desert Island Discs two months ago to declare himself unfit to be Prime Minister. But — unfortunately for him — he is popular and not visibly bombing as Health Secretary. If the ‘Johnson for Leader’ bandwagon gathers pace, we can expect the dogs of Downing Street to be unleashed upon him.
It is also unwise to overlook Jack Straw in all this. As Justice Secretary he has been keeping his nose clean, and staying on good terms with as many people as he can. If Gordon Brown decides he cannot face the ignominy of a general election defeat (perhaps — who knows? — being diagnosed with a mystery illness by obliging doctors as were Eden and Macmillan), then what of his loyal and (so far) untainted former campaign manager, Mr Straw?
The argument against the ‘caretaker’ strategy is not complicated: namely, that the very idea is completely and utterly preposterous. Labour has already taken enough liberties with the public. In June 2005, the British electorate returned Tony Blair to office after he pledged (mendaciously) to serve a full third term. The Labour party has already changed the Prime Minister once, without any form of election. To change the occupant again — with a view to doing so yet again once the putative young Lochinvar was ready to take over from the ‘caretaker’ — would demonstrate an arrogance which would, rightly, be punished with a long spell in opposition.
One former Cabinet member puts it this way. ‘There is no way I would want to lead this party because once it gets into opposition it will just explode and pieces will go everywhere. Who wants to mop that up? Would I want to be the William Hague of the Labour party? No thanks.’ It is a grim prognosis. The Blair faction had the vision, but not the people. The Brownites have the power and the people, but no vision. The future looks bleak.
The present is not much better. Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, wants to resign for accepting a £950 donation from a Jersey-based businessman. Politicians overseas may roar with laughter at such a fuss being created over a small amount given to a little-known politician. But Ms Alexander is a tiny tartan domino at the head of a long chain of people stretching right back to the Prime Minister himself.
If she quits over £950, where will that leave Harriet Harman, who is facing questions over a £5,000 donation? And if Ms Harman quits, what about others in the Labour party who accepted £664,000 from David Abrahams via the proxies he chose to conceal his identity? This is why Ms Alexander is being prevailed upon to stay, becoming, in the process, a laughing stock in the Scottish Parliament. The instructions are being relayed through her brother Douglas, who as Labour election co-ordinator is himself trying to avoid tougher questions about his role in overseeing Mr Abrahams’s illegal donations.
As other members of the Cabinet step up to the media plate to defend the Prime Minister, we have heard strikingly little from Mr Alexander or Mr Balls. The reason for this is quite straightforward: they themselves are advising Mr Brown on whom to put up for interviews and broadcasting spots, and the two men themselves have absolutely no desire to be grilled on what they knew, and when. Their status in the innermost sanctum of Mr Brown’s operation is unorthodox: both have departments to run and are no longer backroom boys. Yet both are behaving as if they were still faceless strategists. Their cowering in the b
unker is one of the least edifying features of this imbroglio.
The police investigation may be quick (by now, the Metropolitan Police know Labour party accounts better than the Prime Minister), but it should be unsparing. The drip feed of embarrassment continues, and the scale of the scandal grows daily. ‘If we had a six-figure donor, we’d love them to death,’ says one Tory fundraiser. ‘The way Abrahams was treated, with the party invites, shows his significance was known right across the party.’ This is the position of Mr Abrahams himself.
In his defence, Mr Brown has grown fond of saying his government will not be judged on the froth of a few weeks, but on how it handles the economy and runs public services. Curiously, he speaks as if there is good news on these fronts. In fact, the reverse is the case. This week the OECD study on education, the most comprehensive in the developed world, showed standards for British 15-year-olds actually falling between 2000 and 2006. School spending, meanwhile, rose by a third. There could be no more eloquent rebuttal of the central Brownite argument: that economic growth would make possible huge public sector ‘investment’ which would lead to radically improved public services. It simply has not happened.
All this is pathetically reminiscent of the film Brewster’s Millions, where the hero is tasked with spending £1 million with nothing to show for it. This is small beer compared to what Mr Brown has pulled off. He has raised taxes by an extra £250 billion every year — equivalent to £5,100 per British household — and has embarrassingly little to show for it. The health budget has more than doubled — yet entering a British hospital has become a dance with death, rather than an encounter with efficient, state-of-the-art healthcare. Scandalously, things are actually getting worse in education, in spite of the spending bonanza.
Thus there is no sunlight on the horizon for Mr Brown. It is instead black with chickens coming home to roost. Even if the donors investigation fades quickly from memory, the public’s increasingly sceptical and angry eye will shift to how little has been delivered in return for all their taxes. This is the other defect in all the present musings about a change of leadership. Labour has run Britain for ten years, gobbled up extraordinary amounts of money, and not done much with it. The instinct of the public is increasingly to give the other chaps a go.
David Cameron has meanwhile been going back to his constituency and preparing for government. This has involved a fairly sober assessment of how many genuinely Cabinet-grade people he has on his team (he struggled to get into double digits). Ideally, his next reshuffle should be the last. It is vital for his prospects that the Tory frontbench look and sound like a competent government-in-waiting in comparison to the disintegrating Brown Cabinet.
For all Mr Cameron’s hyperactivity, there is concern that he is confusing motion with progress. The hard questions are about how, precisely, he would implement the Wisconsin-style welfare reform he has spoken about. We are no closer to an answer than we were during the Tory conference. If the economy does implode, then the current Conservative strategy to outspend Mr Brown on public services might have to be completely reassessed. But there are no plans to do this. And so many issues of policy take us back to the question of Europe — yet we still do not know to what degree a Tory government would challenge Brussels.
Some senior Tories fear that Mr Cameron’s instinct is to play it safe — when the lesson of his death-defying performance at Blackpool conference was precisely the opposite. He proposed a radical welfare overhaul, inheritance tax cuts, and reductions in stamp duty, and the political landscape lit up, not least in the all-important Labour marginal seats. The Tories are more or less ten percentage points ahead. But at his pre-election best, Tony Blair was an astonishing 42 points ahead. His average lead was 25 points.
Mr Cameron is nowhere near such levels of popularity. At present, he is on course to win with a John Major-sized majority — yet judging by the literally criminal ineptitude on the Labour side a far better result ought to be within his grasp. There are at most 30 months until the next election, so a step change in Tory thinking is required. The clearer the defects of Labour policies become, the graver the danger becomes in simply mimicking them.
Labour itself will not change course. Mr Brown likes rigid long-term strategies — and his short-term plan is only to protect himself from internal insurgents. They have a poor track record. While the Tories can get rid of their leaders on a wet weekend, Labour has a dismal history when it comes to regicide. The party which endured Michael Foot for three years and Neil Kinnock for nine can whisper in the corridors of the Commons about life ‘After Gordon’ all it likes. But the odds are that such plans will only be needed when Mr Brown finally steps down as Leader of the Opposition.