Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Should Gordon hold a Night of the Long Knives?

I'm not going to claim this is an original thought. The idea came from a post on Paul Burgin's blog earlier today entitled "Accountablity" but I hope Paul will take it as compliment rather than as deliberate plagiarism if I say that I think the question merits further examination.

Paul's rather drastic solution to the Government's current troubles is to suggest that Gordon Brown should try to draw a conclusive line under the dodgy donations affair by sacking everyone involved, namely Harriet Harman, Peter Hain, Jack Dromey and Jon Mendelsohn. You would probably have to add Wendy Alexander to the list as well, though Paul doesn't mention her by name.

There are some obvious attractions to such a strategy, primarily that it would rid the Government and the party of a lightweight deputy leader and a treasurer who doesn't seem to know what day it is, let alone who has given the party money. But the key political question is: would it work, or would in fact serve to deepen Mr Brown's difficulties?

As I have said on Paul's blog, there are to my mind two major pitfalls with Nights of the Long Knives. Firstly, by sacking people you have only recently appointed, you call your own judgement into question. Secondly, some people know where so many bodies are buried that getting rid of them is likely to prove counter-productive.

Jack Dromey is a real case in point here. He was, of course, the man who blew the whistle on the cash for honours affair that hastened Tony Blair's departure, and if the Gospel according to the Blairites is to be believed, he was acting on the direct orders of Gordon Brown in so doing.

If this version of events is true, it makes Dromey unsackable, as the one man in British politics who could prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Brown plotted to bring down Blair.

On the more general point, while reshuffles have become a time-honoured way for Prime Ministers to "relaunch" their governments, recent history seems to suggest that the tactic very rarely works.

The best historical analogy would be Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives in 1962 in which he sacked a third of his Cabinet - "the wrong third" as some commentators said at the time. It did him little good in the longer term, and caused one Tory MP to wryly observe: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life."

Finally, it seems to me that if Gordon is looking for scapegoats for the current political mess he finds himself in, Messrs Harman and Hain are no more deserving of the sack than Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander.

It was they who really kicked off the current crisis by over-egging the speculation about an autumn election and whipping the media up into such a state of frenzy over it that it virtually guaranteed a backlash.

I do however think that Gordon could strengthen the government by making Jack Straw Deputy Prime Minister, as he should have been from the start, and by bringing back Alan Milburn as Minister without Portfolio to oversee some fresh thinking about a Labour fourth term, including a drive to improve social mobility.

The problem, in my view, with the Brown Cabinet is not that it contains too many incompetent minsters, so much as the fact that it contains too many kids.

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Tom Griffin said...

An election on 1 November now looks as if it would have been quite a good idea.
The corollary, surely, is that Douglas Alexander is a political genius, and far from sacking him, Gordon Brown should take his advice more often!

emma2000 said...

Jack Straw, you must be joking, he is a little creep and doesn't mind who he shills for. I quite like Alan Milburn but can you honestly see Brown letting anyone who might supplant him anywhere near the Cabinet. Part of his problem, among many other personality flaws, is his deliberate destruction of anyone who might who might be a threat hence his Cabinet of numpties. There is no Government, he is his own Chancellor, Foreign Sec. and Home Sec. takes the credit for anything good, not that there has been much of that, but makes sure someone else takes the blame. As far as I'm concerned the sooner we get rid of them the better, like the Tories in 1997 and period of opposition will do them good.

rwendland said...

I don't think GB has the power to sack Jack Dromey, or Harriet Harman from the deputy leader position - they have elected posts not in his gift.

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Was it a Tory MP or Jeremy Thorpe who made that comment about laying down his friends for his life?

It's a brilliant line either way, but if it was Thorpe there is of course an inherent irony in it...

I agree that a Night of the Long Knives would probably only make things worse - given the current shortage of talents in Labour who haven't bitterly and repeatedly quarelled with Gordon Brown, it's hard to think where better replacements will come from. Moreover, it looks bad in the press. But quite what he IS meant to do to try adn turn things round, is another matter entirely. He's in a horrible mess right now - and it's all his own fault!

Paul Burgin said...

I see your point Paul, but you are partly working on an assumption that Brown was involved in trying to frame Blair at some point in the not too distant past, and that is just hearsay. In any case, to make either move is very risky and I would rather keep the electorates trust than worry about my own position as such!

RedEye said...

Jeremy Thorpe. I think he also quipped that it was good to see the PM keep his head while all around him were losing theirs.

I think Paul's right to say that the Night of The Long Knives did Macmillan no good. The government dropped by 12% in at least one opinion poll, and even Sir Alec Douglas-Home's lowest ratings were better than those of Macmillan's best (or least worst) ratings after the Night of the Long Knives. For that reason alone, I've never been convinced by the counterfactual historians who argue that Macmillan would have beaten Wilson (or even Gaitskell) in 1964. After the Night of the Long Knives (and definitely after Profumo) Macmillan was like Blair after 03, Major after Black Wednesday, and Thatcher in 1990, ie on the skids.

Re. who else is there in the Labour Party, Benn and Denham are good, as are Michael Wills and Pat McFadden (though McFadden has the misfortune to be labelled Blairite). Patricia Scotland could always be made Leader of the Lords (or Justice Secretary, if Straw is made Chancellor).

Give Graham Allen a job as well (he'd almost certainly make a better Defence Secretary than Des Brown, and he'd definitely make a better junior defence minister than Bob Ainsworth, a natural for the Whips Office, but sadly miscast in such a public role).