Peter Hoskin

Can Brown’s inner circle be broken?

Can Brown's inner circle be broken?
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Given the speculation that's whirling around Westminster about plots to oust Brown in the autumn, it's worth noting this passage from Steve Richards' article for the latest New Statesman:

"The most significant change since the hopelessly disparate attempted coup last month is how the rest of the cabinet relate to Brown, Mandelson and Balls, the trio who are working closely together. Recently a friend asked one cabinet minister on the so-called Blairite wing whether he thought Mandelson would tell Brown that the game was up if polls suggested Labour was heading for electoral oblivion. The minister replied that he could no longer have such a conversation with Mandelson; it would be seen as disloyal to Brown to present such a hypothesis. In his view, Mandelson now works first and foremost for Brown, and that is the end of the matter. Similarly, a cabinet minister regarded as a Brown supporter feels less engaged now that the Prime Minister has in effect formalised an inner circle with Mandelson and Balls at its heart. It is cabinet ministers outside the inner circle who dare to wonder about where all this is heading.

But they wonder shapelessly. In theory, they are strong. Brown cannot afford any more resignations. Ministers have more space to breathe than at any time since Labour came to power, when nearly all of them were stifled by the Blair/Brown duopoly, followed by the Brown coronation. The most potent example is the position of the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who is now unsackable, having been almost sacked at the last reshuffle. Darling is aware of his peculiar security and is becoming more assertive in his determination to convey a more prudent message about future spending prospects.

However, there is little sign, as yet, that any minister in the 'outer circle' has a better election strategy than the one being advanced by Brown, Balls and Mandelson. This includes Darling, who hasn’t found a compelling political message to accompany his more authoritative handling of the economy. As a senior government insider put it: 'Alistair has to decide whether he wants to be like Roy Jenkins – an austere chancellor who delivered a Budget that contributed to Labour losing the election in 1970 – or a genuinely Labour chancellor who wants us to win.' The suggestion that it is up to Darling to decide which course he will take is a testament to the power that suddenly resides in the Treasury.

For now, the signs are that Brown, Balls and Mandelson are more focused than the disparate insurrectionists and bewildered internal critics."

One question this does leave open is what should happen if the mutual loyalty of the "inner circle" breaks down.  Balls has, allegedly, already said that he'll wield the knife if Brown fails to improve Labour's standing over the next few months.  And Mandelson's motives remain perpetually mysterious.  If one of them were to turn on Brown - and that's a Big If - then you suspect it could be fatal to his premiership.