When Number 10 said that Gordon Brown’s leadership had not been discussed in the Cabinet on Tuesday morning, it sounded a bit odd. After all, every other gathering of Labour MPs in the land has been talking of little else: how much more humiliation lies ahead, and when the end might come. So it came as no surprise to learn that the spin doctors’ claim was untrue. In fact, the issue did come up in Cabinet, raised by none other than the Prime Minister himself — and in the most extraordinary terms.
After Mr Brown had gone through the motions of discussing government business (not something anyone is much focused on these days), the PM declared that people should indeed have their say on his leadership. But they should wait until the economic crisis was over: now, he said, is the ‘wrong time’. Cabinet colleagues who want him replaced were stunned: this was precisely the formula disillusioned ministers like Douglas Alexander and John Hutton have been using — taken as code to mean that Gordon should indeed go, but not yet.
So Labour is this weekend heading for a party conference at which apparently no one in the party, from the Prime Minister down, will argue with any passion that he is the right man for the job. Were this the Conservative party we would be bracing ourselves for a week of high drama. Yet while the Tories have come to regard their conferences as a form of blood sport, and the platform a gladiatorial arena, there will be nothing much decided in Manchester next week. Mr Brown has diverted all his energies into ensuring it will be a unity rally, however unpersuasive it may be.
It is not just the sewers around the Manchester Central conference centre that are being searched for hidden explosives. The daily agenda has been scoured by Mr Brown’s organisers for any potentially fissile material. All likely outlets for protest have been closed down. Each Cabinet member has been ordered to keep his or her speech to seven minutes: try setting out your stall as a leadership contender in 420 seconds. Of course, the overall effect will be to make the Prime Minister appear terrified of debate of any kind. In this last-ditch burst of control freakery, Brown will be almost daring his party to revolt. That said, Labour likes to rally behind something and, as was the case last year, Mr Brown will be the only something on offer.
Yet two rebellions are already under way, neither of which may be conclusive. The first is the mutterings among Cabinet ministers, agreeing among themselves that something must be done but also saying no less emphatically: ‘You first.’ When David Miliband published his ‘come and get me’ personal manifesto in the Guardian in July, he took a gamble and lost. He was surprised and hurt that his supporters stayed quiet, telling him (that phrase again) that it was the ‘wrong time’. So the Foreign Secretary is reduced to squealing on television with apparently insincere protests of loyalty.
Given that Mr Brown picked his Cabinet for their docility rather than their talent, this abortive coup was in his gameplan. So, too, was the wrongfooting of the backbenchers who constitute the second rebellion. The Brown radar, ever sensitive to disloyalty, successfully identified Labour MPs who had asked for nomination papers for the leadership and then leaked their names to deny them the ability to co-ordinate any attack. This is why Siobhain McDonagh and her fellow rebels appear such a rag-tag force, lacking a common cause and reduced to muttering about Nixonian war between the party leader and party members.
The strange case of David Cairns shows how the Brown witch-hunt is being conducted. Word reached Mr Brown’s henchmen that the minister of state at the Scotland Office was having doubts, and he was given an offer they imagined he couldn’t refuse: he would keep his job in the next reshuffle in return for issuing a statement of support. Yet this former Catholic priest said he could not, in conscience, make such a deal. Then came a supplementary offer which perfectly exemplifies Mr Brown’s brutal modus operandi. Mr Cairns could resign, but quietly. If he said anything unpleasant about the Prime Minister, the dogs would be let loose on him.
Even if nothing else in government is functioning, Mr Brown’s team of character assassins is still at large, at full operational strength and widely feared. ‘You have to let them know you can hurt them more than they can hurt you,’ one Cabinet member told me before the recess. ‘You have to say, “If you come after me, I will do X, Y and Z to you.” It’s brutal, but it’s the only way of getting through to him.’ Mr Cairns was obviously not taught about this art of war in the seminary.
All this helps explain why the only ones speaking up against Mr Brown are those with nothing to lose. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the Prime Minister is being kept in place through fear — and yet the deepest terror is not fear of his praetorians, real as that is, but of the regicidal process itself. The phrase which Mr Miliband keeps hearing — ‘not yet’ — encapsulates this almost pathological procrastination. Labour knows it is suicide to enter a general election with the most unpopular leader in postwar politics, but can’t see what would happen next if they did dump him now, or soon, and don’t want to face the bloody leadership battle that would follow.
This is why so many arbitrary milestones are being mentioned. Wait until after conference, they argue. Or when parliament sits again. Or — the current favourite — the Glenrothes by-election expected in November. As anyone vaguely familiar with the area knows, Labour’s defeat here is a formality. The Scottish Nationalists took the overlapping Holyrood constituency last year. It is not a test of anything significant, aside from whether Alex Salmond can be even more smug the morning after than he was in the wake of his Glasgow East triumph.
So — paradoxically — Number 10 is happy for the Glenrothes by-election to be treated as D-day. Brown’s team believes that it will become apparent that this vote is not a meaningful test of anything. After that a new and no less artificial deadline will be found — be it Christmas, Burns Night, the European elections or anything that postpones confrontation. But this is, as one Cabinet member told me, ‘tactical mastery but strategic calamity’ — for time will not help Mr Brown any more than it helped John Major. The Conservatives should wish him luck: on present form, the longer he clings to power, the larger David Cameron’s majority will be.
There is something strange about seeing a man who loves five-year plans mapping out his survival strategy month by month, week by week, day by day. Yet the strategy is working, at least for now, because of the timidity of the Labour party: the leadership battle is being postponed as one might postpone root canal surgery. This is why Mr Brown is betting that his ‘not yet’ argument will work until the next general election. The tragedy, for the Labour party and the country that is paying the price for this tribal introspection, is that he is probably right.