The future of Gordon Brown is dominating political discussion at the moment both at Westminster and across the blogosphere. Fellow left-of-centre blogger Skipper and myself decided to hold an exchange of views which we hereby publish for your entertainment and, possibly, enlightenment.
If there are any other bloggers who would like to take part in a similar exchange on a politically-related subject - or even one about sport or music, for that matter - feel free to email me.
Paul: I said in my column at the weekend that in order to stand any chance of victory at the next election, there needs to be a fundamental change in the character, culture and direction of the government, and that this will probably entail a change of leadership. And yet, as a long-standing admirer of Gordon Brown, part of me still clings to the hope that he can somehow turn it round. I suppose his only real hope is an early end to the recession and some sort of vindication of his economic rescue package, but even then there is the danger that the voters will blame him for having created the mess in the first place. Do you think the party can still win under Gordon, or is it time for Labour to move on from the Blair-Brown years?
Skipper: As a lifetime Labour supporter it grieves me to say that I cannot conceive of any circumstance in which Brown can win next year. He has been a huge disappointment. I thought this precocious political talent (oh yes, he has lots of it) would reveal his distinctive contribution to government once Blair had departed- God knows he conspired and plotted enough to get it- but he has contributed virtually nothing since June 2007. Most depressing is his lack of judgement: pulling back from the expected ‘snap election’ started the rot in 2007 and, adding to others we have seen most recently, his total misjudgement of popular sentiment on both the Gurkha issue and MP’s expenses.
Whatever his faults- and they were many- Blair would never have allowed both items in a single week to avoid his antennae. Gordon might climb partially out of the hole he’s in but I don’t think there’s time to complete the job. Even if he did I think he’s had his run in the first 11 but has come up only with low scores and ducks. I just hope he’ll recognise his own failure and go voluntarily but an obsessive introverted high achiever like Gordon will probably lack any true self awareness.
Paul: I actually think there’s a chance he will go voluntarily, Bill – he’s a loyal party man if nothing else. But for the time being, let’s just assume for the sake of argument that he won’t. What, if anything, should the Cabinet do to bring the issue to a head? And do they even have the bottle? Last year, Labour found itself in a not dissimilar position, there was a lot of talk about plots, about Jack Straw handing him the pearl-handed revolver, about people refusing to be moved in a reshuffle or refusing to serve altogether, about David Miliband taking over – and none of it came to anything. Will this year be any different?
Skipper: Well, that's what we are all so fascinated about is it not? Will they have the bottle or will they fall away? I suspect the latter. There is no real alternative candidate available. Straw, Johnson and Harman could all make a fist of at least an interim leadership tenure: vital if Labour are to minimize the almost inevitable landslide in 2010. The smaller the loss the quicker it will be to recover. Johnson looks like the best bet to me; Straw would command respect; and Harman might think, as Thatcher did back in 1975, that 'This is my moment' and seek to advance the ambitions which I feel sure she is disguising.
But they have all three cried off over the past few days. Does this mean they won't stand in any circumstances? No. But those circumstances- a formal contest- are unlikely to occur. So the most likely outcome, I fear, is more of the same limping, faltering Brown until the meltdown happens. Depressing. A voluntary exit would be a hugely beneficial and unselfish act.
Paul: As I said before, I think there’s a chance he might do that. For starters, he is a loyal party man at heart, and I don’t think he would want the party destroyed in an election if there was a chance that someone else could achieve a better outcome. There is also Gordon’s risk-averse history to consider – his failure to contest the Labour nomination for the Hamilton by-election against George Robertson in 1978, his failure to contest the Labour leadership against Tony Blair in 1994, and as you have mentioned, his failure to hold a general election in 2007 (which I thought was the right decision at the time but events have probably proved me wrong.)
The unmistakable conclusion we should draw from this is that Gordon doesn’t fight elections when there is a chance he will lose. I think he would be especially unlikely to contest such an election against David Cameron, who is someone he genuinely despises. Against that, there’s the Micawberist argument – that something might turn up – and that Place in History argument – that three years in No 10 looks better than two. Although those can be persuasive factors, on balance my feeling is that he will go.
Skipper: This, along with whether the Cabinet are spineless or not, is the really intriguing question. In favour of a voluntary exit is your case- shies away from contests he can't win, 'solid party man' provides an excuse for bowing out. And, who knows? the 'men in flat caps' (I'm looking for the Labour equivalent of 'men in suits') might be down to pay a visit after the June elections.
Against that we have: your 'Micawber possibility', his stubborn grasp of the power he sought all his political life; and the desire to outstay the short term premiers like Canning (5 months), Bonar Law (6 months), Douglas Home (12 months) and Eden (21 months). So far he's running ahead of that lot but I suspect the one with whom he will compare himself is Jim Callaghan, who served virtually 36 months. Surely he wouldn't be so petty as to worry about such a thing? Oh yes, he would; remember how Blair hung on to make it into double figures?
So far Brown has managed nearly 24 months: he could equal Jim's stint if he hangs on. Which case will prove correct? Well, I can quite see Paul's persuasive argument and it wouldn't surprise me too much if Gordon fell on his sword, but I'd put a tenner on him not doing so.
Paul: I said at the outset that I’ve always been an admirer of Brown’s, and genuinely thought he would make a successful Prime Minister. Why do you think he has been such a spectacularly unsuccessful one? A lot of people have pointed to the so-called “psychological flaws” in Gordon, but to my mind you have to be pretty psychologically flawed to want to be a politician in the first place, so it’s not an argument I have ever had a lot of truck with. Was it simply that he had the bad luck to inherit the leadership just at the time the political tide was going out on New Labour and the roof was about to fall in economically, or has he been more the author of his own misfortunes? And will history look on him more kindly than his contemporaries, particularly if the economy does recover and his rescue package comes to be seen as having played a key part in that?
Skipper: Well, there is not so much to chalk up in the 'achievements' column is there? And we've already discussed his poor judgement. It could be his economic remedies will come to be seen as well crafted, well timed and ultimately effective. I really do hope so for us all and for Gordon's reputation as there isn't much else in the locker is there? And as for his decade at the Treasury's helm, our present predicament has thrown into less flattering relief his championship of the ultra deregulated Anglo-American Model of capitalism.
But I do so agree he was unfortunate acceding to power after 10 years of his predecessor's squandering of Labour's political capital. However, I subscribe to the 'pathological flaws' view of Brown: a driven, manipulative, quite ruthless politician some degrees worse than the usual run of them, which usually includes, in my view some very decent and public spirited people.