Matthew Dancona

Brown shouldn’t fear the stalking horses

Brown shouldn't fear the stalking horses
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It is a modern ritual that when a party political leader's fortunes plummet - and Gordon Brown's certainly fit that category - there is talk of a leadership contest and, specifically, of a "stalking horse" candidate.

Here's an entertaining look in Slate at the origins of the phrase. But, for most of us, the words trigger memories of Sir Anthony Meyer's challenge to Margaret Thatcher for the Tory leadership in 1989 - doomed in itself, but the key that turned the lock to her downfall a year later.

The Conservative leadership rules in those days were sufficiently flexible to make such a challlenge meaningful, and enabled contenders to step into the second round of a contest. In the Labour context, talk of "stalking horses" is completely meaningless.

A prospective challenger has to secure a whopping 20 per cent of Labour MPs - namely 70 of the 352. Would, say, Charles Clarke receive such backing? Come off it: no serious challenger to Gordon Brown when he was candidate for the post-Blair vacancy - rather than the incumbent - could muster more than 25 names.

But let us follow through the rules, anyway. This imagininary "stalking horse", having implausibly secured 70+signatures, writes to the Labour general secretary announcing his or her intention to challenge Brown.

Then - and this is where we stray into the realm of fantasy - a special conference is held to resolve the matter. Constituency parties and unions are expected to ballot their members on which candidate they favour. The electoral college is split three equal ways between Labour MPs, party members and members of affiliated trade unions, with the one member one vote system introduced in 1993 in operation. The process is lengthy, expensive and utterly disastrous to Labour's prospects at the next general election. Think of the headlines: Never mind the economy, this lot can't even decide who should be in charge.

Can you imagine the Labour machine allowing this to happen? Dream on. Trust me: Gordon will lead Labour into the next general election.