Alex Massie

So what would you do if you were a Labour minister?

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Boss Man d'Ancona asks us to consider what we would think and what we would do were we Labour MPs. A scary thought, I know but that's the point of the exercise. For myself, I like to think I'd agree with Tom Harris. That is, if I were a Labour backbencher I'd be very concerned about my employment prospects and would welcome pretty much Anyone But Gordon as leader. How much worse could any alternative leader be?

But if I were a member of the cabinet and someone who had leadership ambitions myself, I might see matters rather differently and conclude that while Labour would certainly be well-served by a change in leadership the times are sufficiently inauspicious to justify sitting still and keeping very, very quiet for a little longer yet. True, this means that a chronically unpopular Prime Minister whose led his party to its worst national result in more than 80 ears will have to remain in place, but that's the price the country must pay for my ambition.

In any case, what would be the value in taking over now? Any leadership challenge would almost certainly quicky become an ugly, bruising affair. How could it not when it would be fought on personality and public appearance rather than policy or a vision for the future? And what's the prize: being bounced into an early election we are still, whatever the Independent or Polly Toynbee say, likely to lose. And even though everyone would smile and say all the polite things about how this was all Gordon's fault and that it would be silly to blame myself for the defeat what with that poisoned inheritance and all, I'd know and the country would know that it would still have been, at least in part, my defeat - one made worse by the fact that I'd brought upon the party by challenging Gordon for the leadership in the first place.

Would I get a second crack of the whip against Cameron in, say, 2014? That seems a long way away right now. Do I want to be Labour's William Hague? Not a tempting offer, thank you. Better, I think, to either take over after an election defeat and lead the recovery or, better still, be the next-but-one leader and skip the worst bits...

True, perhaps I could win as a unity or compromise candidate after someone else challenged Gordon. But that's not quite the mandate I have in mind when I lie back and think of Downing Street.

And what sort of Labour party would I be leading anyway? A small one, you wags will all say, but also one likely to be more left-wing than the current parliamentary party. That seems like an additional headache I, as a reforming moderniser, could do without. Let one of the other guys have a shot at it. There is, after all, plenty of time before we next need trouble ourselves with the contemplation of victory.

This is all a bloody awkward, delicate situation. Purnell screwed it up for everyone by surprising us like that. Always best to check that you have some company when you embark on a mad cavalry dash. In this instance, there's little upsde in being the first to cross the boss. True, you win media garlands, but that's about it. And anyway, half the public have barely any idea of who Purnell is anyway. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing from his perspective, of course...

But what of Johnson? He could have killed Gordon. Perhaps he really isn't as ambitious as we assume him to be? But he too may feel it's better to become leader in the wreckage of defeat rather than force the skipper to walk the plank and then be defeated anyway.

And, anyway, if we hang on to the bitter, feeble end, who knows, perhaps something will turn up... We're all Mr Micawber now, laddie.

In the end, the coup has been poorly organised because there's too much risk involved and not a big enough or clear enough upside. So they're stuck with El Gordo for better or, more probably, for worse. But, from the point of view of cabinet ministers*, there's some logic to their prevarication.

*The exception would be someone such as Straw who could assume the role of elder statesman, hand Gordon a revolver and a bottle of whisky, and call a quick election on a platform of parliamentary reform, lose it but do so with dignity and so on, leaving the party in a better position to steady itself and begin the journey to recovery after the election.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticslabour partywestminster