James Forsyth

In crisis, there’ll be an opportunity for Brown

In crisis, there'll be an opportunity for Brown
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If Livingstone loses on Thursday and the Labour vote slumps elsewhere in the country, the headlines for Gordon Brown will be dire and he’ll be plunged further into the mire. But in this crisis there will be a brief window of opportunity for him. The press will be in full ‘government in crisis mode’ and getting so excited by the remote prospect of a leadership challenge that Brown will actually have the freedom to carry out a drastic reshuffle. It will be embarrassing and humiliating for Brown to sack or demote those who he chose less than a year ago, but Brown will already be embarrassed and humiliated so he might as well get all the bad news out at once.

The signs are that Brown will not have a clear out straight after the elections; Downing Street fears that this would signal that the Prime Minister has hit the panic button. But the arguments for a dramatic reshuffle are sound. At the moment, the Chancellor and the Home Secretary are either not up to the job or incapable of successfully communicating Labour’s message. (Maybe, the same can be said of Brown. But there is no realistic alternative for Labour but to carry on under him; a governing party can not have three leaders in the same Parliament and remain credible). Alistair Darling and Jacqui Smith will have to go if the government is to get anywhere close to firing on all cylinders and so Brown should remove them now rather than waiting and setting off another round ‘government in crisis’ headlines at a later date.

Brown should have his three best communicators into the three top jobs. Jack Straw is an effective media performer and would be a credible Chancellor. Alan Johnson would be a perfect fit as Home Secretary, putting a more human face on this government.  He’s also the only Labour figure who has a hope of steering 42 days through. David Miliband should stay at the Foreign Office but should be pushed forward more.

As for the rest of the cabinet, Liam Byrne is a natural fit for Justice and Constitutional Affairs. While Ed Miliband would give some intellectual dynamism to Labour’s health policy and show up just how dire the Tory trust the professionals’ approach is. 

Once he has reshuffled, Brown should do a string of interviews with the TV news anchors admitting that he’s tried to run the government as he had the Treasury and that it hasn’t worked. Confessing this is dangerous, but Brown needs to show the public that things are going to change and admitting error—something he is not exactly prone to do—would signal that.

The good news for the Tories is that Brown is probably too risk-averse, and perhaps too proud, to do this. There are, obviously, risks in this approach. But if things go badly on Thursday, Brown will need to take risks to recover.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is Political Editor of the Spectator. He is also a columnist in The Sun.

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