Saturday, June 06, 2009

Brown should go down fighting

Rather than suffer political death by a thousand cuts - or resignations - has the time come for Gordon Brown to employ the ultimate sanction against the Blairite rebels? Here's today's column.

A few weeks ago, in the wake of the 'smeargate' scandal, I predicted that a bad result for Labour in the European and local elections on 4 June would cause all hell to break loose in the party over the ensuing 48 hours.

Well, it seems I was wrong on the last point. In the end, the party didn't even wait until the elections were over before plunging Gordon Brown's premiership into its worst crisis yet.

Labour was already facing a hiding on Thursday before the twin resignations of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears sent the government into near-meltdown.

And since one of the unalterable maxims of politics is that divided parties invariably get a hammering in elections, it is no great surprise that the results already look like being the party's worst ever.

The full picture won't be known until the Euro-election results are published tomorrow, with the very real possibility that UKIP and the Lib Dems may have pushed Labour into fourth place.

But with the Tories taking control of once-safe Labour councils such as Lancashhire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, the scale of the carnage is already becoming pretty clear.

Once again, the old campaigner is refusing to give in without a fight, reshuffling his Cabinet yesterday with just about enough ‘big beasts’ still onside to fill the vacant jobs.

But with Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell joining those who are no longer prepared to work for the Prime Minister, the odds on him surviving even the next week have lengthened considerably.

It is a mark of Mr Brown's extreme weakness that the resignation of a political pygmy like Ms Blears should have provoked the near-collapse of his administration on Wednesday.

Let's not forget that this is a woman who in recent weeks has been forced to pay £13,000 of previously unpaid capital gains tax on the sale of a second home refurbished at taxpayers' expense.

If she didn’t deserve to be sacked on the spot for that, she certainly should have been for the blatant disloyalty and opportunism of her “You Tube if you want to” attack on Mr Brown last month.

Perhaps foolishly, the Prime Minister decided to leave her in place until the reshuffle, giving her the opportunity to further display her lack of loyalty by stabbing him in the front 24 hours before a vital election.

Ms Blears' dramatic exit, though, pales into insignificance besides that of arch-Blairite Mr Purnell. Not only was he not going to be sacked, he was actually going to be promoted.

So far, the rest of the Cabinet has refused to follow his lead, with Defence Secretary and Barrow MP John Hutton making clear that his own decision to stand down yesterday was for family reasons rather than as part of a Blairite revolt.

Mr Brown’s survival now depends on how many backbenchers rally behind the standard of rebellion that Mr Purnell has raised, with an email demanding that Mr Brown step down circulating among MPs

Since Mr Purnell does not himself intend to stand for the leadership, the rebels are still in search of a candidate capable of gaining the 70 MPs’ signatures necessary to provoke a challenge.

The initial impact of the resignations has been to dramatically limit the scope of what Mr Brown was able to achieve with yesterday's chances.

It is pretty clear he wanted to replace Alistair Darling with Ed Balls as Chancellor, but such is Mr Balls' unpopularity among Labour MPs that in the end, Mr Brown had no option but to abandon the idea.

Also staying put is South Shields MP and Foreign Secretary David Miliband, despite reports that Mr Brown wanted to give his job for former Hartlepool MP Lord Mandelson.

Besides Messrs Darling and Miliband, the big winner is leadership heir-apparent Alan Johnson, promoted to Ms Smith’s old job at the Home Office, after her predecessor John Reid apparently ruled out a return to the role.

In some respects, it is possible to argue that the government has been strengthened as a result of this week’s events, with highly capable ministers such as John Denham, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper all earning promotions.

And both Messrs Balls and Mandelson get beefed-up departments, sharing between them the spoils of the short-lived and now-defunct Department for Universities, Innovation and Skills.

But while the reshuffle may have taken some of the sting out of the rebellion, it is unlikely to be the end of the story - especially if tomorrow's results turn out as badly as expected.

The rebel email is still doing the rounds. Labour's supporters in the national press are deserting the Prime Minister. And Ms Smith, Ms Blears and Mr Purnell still have the chance to make Geoffrey Howe-style personal statements to the House.

But the Prime Minister does have one weapon left in his armoury to use against the rebels - ironically the very course of action Tory leader David Cameron has been urging on him for months.

It is quite simply to call a general election. The party would then have no option but to call off all the plotting and rally round its leader.

Of course, Mr Brown would lose, but he would at least go down fighting at the hands of the electorate rather than at the hands of the Blairites, and he would at least earn the public's gratitude for the manner of his departure.

The logic is clear. If Mr Brown wants to be sure of leading the Labour Party into the next election, he should call it now.

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James Higham said...

Also, Cameron's not ready but would be by October.

Anonymous said...

What's your analysis of the first town/parish council elections in the south-east of Northumberland where the LDs took Ashington and Blyth and some others.

King Athelstan said...

That won't stop Labour from getting the caning of a lifetime though,all that slaughter was athe verdict on him.

Anonymous said...

That is what he SHOULD do, but he won't.

Gordon appears to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He actually believes he is competent; the only man to lead the country through the recession and a shining example of Presbytarian morals.

He fears the humiliation of losing a General Election. He's far more likely to hold on until next April and then announce his resignation so his successor has no time whatsoever to establish him/herself before the election has to be held.

Anonymous said...

The one thing Brown always runs away from is an election;he chickened out against Blair for the Labour leadership,got his thugs to make sure nobody stood against him when Blair stood down,bottled it again in October 2007 and of course reneged on the manifesto pledge for a EU referendum.

To hold a GE would take courage which like so many other qualities Brown doesn't have.

If he doesn't get dumped within the next two days he will limp on costing his party around 1% in the polls for each month that he stays on.
By the spring of next year he will resign for health reasons and avoid yet another election.


Oli said...


Yoiu've said previously that Gordon will never fight an election he knows he will lose.

While I see the sense in your advice to him in your last paragraph, I think you know that he will never "Get down to the palace, ask for a dissolution and call that election".

I don't know what the future holds, but I fear this is about the only certainty as to what it [i]doesn't[/i] hold.

Stephen said...

I suspect that were Gordon to go to the country right now, Labour would have him replaced as leader in a matter of days, since they are facing decimation on such a scale that the party may never recover.

Ross said...

I can't understand why Brown even wants to remain in office, his authority is weakened that he can't conceivably accomplish anything in the next year, so why prolong the agony.

Alfie said...

I viewed Brown's statement on the constitution - the only mention he made about devolving power to England was a mumble here about city regions here and a 'pledge' to go to the 'next level' of devolution there.... whatever that is.

How can he devolve anything while at the same time, he increases his grip on planning, housing, transport, education, health - all via hand picked central government quangos. All they do is obey orders.

I seem to remember Paul, two years ago, when Brown was about to mount his putsch for the leadership, you speculated that he might be about to announce some sort of national self expression for England. Obviously, not a parliament (heaven forbid). But your reasoning for such democratic optimism was that old Gordy was a pragmatist and at heart a decent kinda guy (Hey, another one!)

All I would like to ask you Paul is have you still got any of that gear left? I fancy a bit of self delusion myself :-)

skipper said...

I hate to say it, but my prediction in our recent 'debate' that Gordon would never go voluntarily, seems to be being borne out.