Gordon Brown is not used to being spoken back to in Cabinet, which made a recent session on tackling David Cameron all the more memor-able. The civil servants were sent away, as is the custom at political Cabinet meetings, and the Prime Minister laid forth the Gospel according to St Gordon. The Conservatives had not changed, he said, and the next election would be a choice between Tory cuts and Labour investment — the narrative of the 2001 and 2005 campaigns. When he finished, there was an embarrassed silence. Then, one by one, his colleagues told him why he was wrong.
This time last year, the Prime Minister could have told them that the moon (or Mr Cameron) was made of green cheese without fear of contradiction. Now his authority has all but perished and his Cabinet are un- afraid to speak out. During that meeting, Mr Brown was told that it is futile to pretend the Tories have not changed and that it is more important, in fact, to persuade the public that Labour has changed. What none of his Cabinet colleagues said is that, as long as the party is led by this Scots chap with his wearily familiar face, it will be impossible to convince the voters that the governing party is refreshed and fit for purpose.
How to change this face is now the dominant topic of conversation at Westminster. It is too late to use the formal mechanism of a leadership challenge, but there are many ways to skin a cat. The party is broadly split into three groups: the Insurgents urging immediate action to get it over with in the summer recess; the One-Last-Chancers who want to reserve judgment until Christmas; and the Micawberists who want to keep Mr Brown in Number 10 in the hope that something will turn up. It is worth exploring their arguments in some detail.
The Insurgents are the most active group. In some cases, this energy is driven by a Blairite desire for vengeance. More common is a simple desire to see the Labour party — so painfully rebuilt after 18 years in opposition — survive its present traumas. This group’s concern is that Mr Brown is leading Labour to an epic finale to the limbo dance which has been his premiership. His run of disasters (the worst local election results since 1918, finishing fifth behind the BNP in the Henley by-election) point to the sort of general election defeat from which it takes a decade to recover.
The One-Last-Chancers long for a cooling-off period. They think that from the aftermath of the Glasgow East by-election on 24 July to the start of conference season in September is time enough for everyone to calm down. After all, they say, Westminster has become prone to freak political weather conditions — and wasn’t it just last year that magazines like The Spectator ran front covers with Mr Cameron’s head in a noose? Jack Straw and Alan Johnson are both in this camp — urging calm, while privately relishing the experience of being talked up as candidates.
It is hard to overstate the size of Labour’s Micawberist camp. The bulk of its MPs have already adopted the brace position, and have little interest in changing the pilot. They talk about the ‘TINA’ factor (‘there is no alternative’) and say a leadership election would be ‘divisive’ which, by definition, it would be — that is why it scares the party as a whole. Ex-Cabinet ministers, though, who have little to lose, see this divisiveness as a small price to pay for getting rid of the man who is such a drag on Labour’s fortunes.
Whatever the potential timing of a putsch against Mr Brown, there is a striking degree of consensus on the method. He can be forced to go, it is argued, if the right delegation of Cabinet members threatens to resign. This is unlikely to involve David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, who has grown fond of repeating the old Michael Heseltine adage that those who wield the dagger never wear the crown. ‘I wish he’d find a new way of phrasing this, it’s getting boring,’ complains one friend. He remains the bookmakers’ favourite.
The role of Alistair Darling could prove crucial. There are signs that the Chancellor may have a Geoffrey Howe-style capacity for detonation. I understand that he twice offered to resign when Mr Brown was ordering shambolic redrafts of the Budget from Number 10. ‘What I’m not going to do is define myself against the Prime Minister,’ Mr Darling said in an intriguing Evening Standard interview last week. ‘People ask me, “Why don’t you do that?”, well I don’t think it would be right.’ This remark had a clear subtext: if I wanted to take on Gordon, I could.
One Insurgent I spoke to recently said that a delegation of just two Cabinet members could be enough to force Mr Brown to go — if those two were Mr Darling and Mr Straw. Neither is seen as a likely winner of the multi-candidate leadership election which would be almost certain to follow. Labour has learned there cannot be another stitch-up, or a coronation. We can expect Harriet Harman, Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas, David Miliband and James Purnell to stand.
The above list of names is deployed by more nervy Labour MPs to illustrate the futility of a leadership election. Wouldn’t such a contest simply serve to demonstrate that the Labour party has run out of heavyweights? Perhaps, reply the Insurgents: but stars can be born in such races, as the Conservatives found in Blackpool three years ago. And whoever wins, the party would at the very least be shot of its greatest problem: Mr Brown’s deepening and quite remarkable unpopularity (73 per cent of voters say that Brown is bad for them and their family).
The Queen would, of course, end up having her hand kissed by a Labour leader for the third time since the last general election. One can speculate that Her Majesty, like her subjects, would by this stage be finding all this chopping and changing a little tiresome. That is why there is near unanimity within the Labour party that any new prime minister would have to go the country after no more than six months — hoping to roll his honeymoon period into the general election campaign. The inspiration here is Kevin Rudd, who became Australia’s Labor leader less than a year before being elected Prime Minister.
There is one caveat. The Westminster regicide handbook is written by Conservatives, with a few (very spicy) supplementary chapters contributed by the Liberal Democrats. This is because Labour has thus far been uneasy with this brutal form of renewal. Its default position is to stick to a bad five-year plan, rather than risk a new one. What it needs now is an individual willing to say that this instinct is wrong: someone willing to sacrifice their career, and possibly open himself up to ridicule, to do what is best for the party. It may simply be that no one in today’s Labour party is ready to do this. Over the next few months, we shall find out.