Peter Hoskin

Will Harman make her mark on Brown’s week from hell?

Will Harman make her mark on Brown's week from hell?
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With things happening so fast over the past few days, it's worth taking stock of where we - or, more accurately, the Labour Party - are in the struggle to get rid of Gordon.  While the resignation of James Purnell didn't spark the high-level Cabinet rebellion it could have done - and while folk like Alan Johnson and David Miliband may still be sitting, supine, in the highest offices of government - the bottom line is that Brown faces an extremely difficult few days.  

There are the election results tomorrow night, which you'd imagine to be disastrous for Labour; a meeting with the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night, which is being set up as the moment when backbenchers will tell Brown to go; and, on Wednesday, that Commons debate about whether Parliament should be dissolved.  And, all the while, the plotters are murmuring in the background and trading emails with one another.  You do wonder whether they've got anything in store for the Sunday papers.

The problem for the Dear Leader is that the reshuffle was one of the last items left in his armoury.  Now that it has been expended, he's got no meaningful way to respond to future threats beyond sheer defiance - and, if solid leadership challenges emerge, that simply may not be enough.  I suspect that Brown is just left hoping that things don't kick off.  And it's this essential helplessness which still makes me think that he's more likely to go in the next few weeks than not.

But an awful lot still rests on the anti-Brown brigade speaking out, and loudly so.  In essence, this means that leadership candidates need to be identified or stalking horses readied.  At the moment, this is Brown's greatest solace: Miliband doesn't look like he's up for being Labour leader before the next election; Purnell seems to have already ruled himself out; and Alan Johnson has been bound even more closely to the government.  Beyond outliers such as Charles Clarke, just who else is there?

To my mind, one person who's worth keeping an eye on, even though it's difficult to be impressed by her as a politician, is Harriet Harman.  Sure, she's come out in support of Brown over the past few days (they all do that, don't they?) - but she certainly harbours leadership ambitions, and could be attractive to many in the Labour Party as a kind of caretaker-cum-unity candidate.  Besides, apart from perhaps Ed Balls, she's the Big Loser from the reshuffle: Peter Mandelson has been made the de facto Deputy PM; while Downing Street's assertion that Harman will still "deputise" for Brown at PMQs came across as laughable and patronising.  Yes, Harriet, this could be your moment.