Could Harriet Harman really become Prime Minister if Gordon Brown fell? Not if Labour wants to maximise its chances at the next election. Here's today's Journal column.
One of the enduring truisms of British politics is that when it comes to choosing party leaders, Labour invariably chooses the obvious candidate while the Tories often opt for the unexpected.
By and large, it holds true. In each of the last four Labour leadership elections, the party has chosen the initial front-runner – successively Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
By contrast, the status of early front-runner in a Tory leadership election is usually the kiss of death – as Michael Heseltine in 1990, Ken Clarke in 1997, Michael Portillo in 2001 and David Davis in 2005 all found to their cost.
It is tempting to think it has something to do with political worldview. While Tories are ruthlessly unsentimental by nature, Labour people seem more inclined to award the leadership on the basis of what used to be known as “Buggins’ Turn.”
But in the summer of 2007, the party did something mildly unpredictable. Not, of course, choosing Mr Brown as leader – that was as Buggins-ish a Labour appointment as they come.
No, their slightly leftfield choice – in more ways than one – was to select Harriet Harman as deputy leader over a field of candidates which included several nominally more senior figures.
If there was an “obvious” candidate in that election, it was probably Alan Johnson, at that time the education secretary and a man who had been seriously talked about as a potential alternative to Mr Brown for the top job.
That the Labour Party instead chose Ms Harman has subsequently led many observers to suggest that she would be the person to beat in any contest to succeed the Prime Minister.
It is not hard to fathom at least one of the reasons why Ms Harman had such substantial support among the party’s grassroots – her gender.
The party has a proud record of campaigning for greater gender equality and to give her her due, Ms Harman has been right in the forefront of that campaign for most of her political career.
Another reason for Ms Harman’s success was the fact that she managed to position herself in exactly the right place to win the election to be Mr Brown’s deputy – that is, very slightly to the left of the incoming PM.
This careful positioning ensured that she scooped up the second preference votes of the left-wing candidate, Jon Cruddas, enabling her to defeat Mr Johnson in the final run-off.
But there was one other very significant element of Ms Harman’s support in that 2007 contest which is less easily explained – the backing she received from key members of Mr Brown’s own inner circle.
Labour MPs who gave her their votes included Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper, Nigel Griffiths, Ed Miliband, Geoffrey Robinson, Michael Wills and two North-East MPs, Nick Brown and Kevan Jones.
Of course, it is quite possible that each of this eminent group of Brownites arrived independently at the judgement that Ms Harman was the best qualified of the candidates.
But that is not, historically, how Gordon’s gang have operated. They tend to hunt as a pack, taking their lead from the top and always acting in what they see as their man’s best interests.
So for me, the enduring mystery of the Harman election – especially in the light of all the subsequent rumours about her plotting to take over – is why the Brown camp wanted her as No 2?
The suspicion persists that it was primarily down to a desire to keep out candidates who would have been more of a threat – such as Mr Johnson or Peter Hain – along with those espousing a “Blairite” agenda, such as Hazel Blears.
It has been said by some that having encouraged his inner circle to back Ms Harman, Mr Brown then regretted it immediately.
If so, this would seem to be borne out by his decision to appoint her not as Deputy Prime Minister but instead to the relatively humdrum positions of party chair and Leader of the Commons.
Ever since then, Mr Brown has kept the post of deputy premier open, giving him the option of using it either to strengthen his Cabinet line-up or neutralise a potential rival.
That wily tactician John Major successfully achieved both when he elevated Mr Heseltine to the position in 1995.
The most likely beneficiary of such a manoeuvre in these circumstances would be Mr Johnson – but that would run the risk of triggering a full-scale revolt by Ms Harman’s supporters.
Ms Harman has already been cleverly positioning herself to the left of the collective government position on issues on which Mr Brown is vulnerable in his own party, such as bankers’ bonuses and the Royal Mail sell-off.
So could she really become leader and Prime Minister? Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t think so.
Okay, so she won the only contested leadership or deputy leadership election Labour has held in the past 15 years and, on the strength of that alone, it is impossible to write her off.
But if Mr Brown did fall, the party would in my view be focused on one thing and one thing alone – choosing the person most likely to give David Cameron a run for his money at the next election.
That person is not Ms Harman, but the “obvious candidate” she so narrowly beat: Alan Johnson.