Saturday, May 24, 2008

Damage limitation may require new leader

Today's column in the Newcastle Journal, focusing on the potential fallout from Crewe and Nantwich and the prospects for a Milburn leadership challenge.


It would be fair to say that, during the course of her long parliamentary career, the former Crewe and Nantwich MP Gwyneth Dunwoody was not exactly a friend of New Labour.

As chair of the Commons Transport Committee, she regularly lambasted the government’s failure to make the railways a priority and, in particular, its slowness in tackling the chaos of rail privatisation after 1997.

Indeed, she proved so troublesome that, in 2001, the then Chief Whip, Durham North West MP Hilary Armstrong, made a ham-fisted attempt to keep her off the committee so she could not be re-elected as its chairman.

But backbench Labour MPs rose up in support of their doughty colleague, and Mrs Dunwoody continued to be a thorn in the side of the government moreorless up until her death last month.

There is, therefore, no little irony in the fact that the by-election caused by her passing has now resulted in Tory leader David Cameron hailing “the death of New Labour.”

But party stalwart that she undoubtedly was, I doubt that even Mrs Dunwoody would have wished what happened on Thursday night on Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Whether the 17pc swing to the Tories leaves Mr Brown’s leadership holed below the waterline only time will tell. It certainly constitutes the gravest crisis of his premiership.

It will, I suspect, become clearer over the next 48 hours whether there will be a serious attempt to depose him now, or whether he will be given until the autumn conference season to try to turn the situation round.

Is there a historical precedent for what happened at Crewe? The most oft-heard one this week has been the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, won by the Liberal Democrats from the Tories on a 20pc swing.

Within five weeks of that result, the most successful Conservative Prime Minister of modern times, Margaret Thatcher, had been unceremoniously ousted.

As is often the case with Mr Brown, however, the case of James Callaghan provides an interesting counter-precedent.

In April 1977, the Tories won Ashfield from Labour on a 20pc swing, a year or so after Mr Callaghan had become Prime Minister. It was another two years before he left No 10.

The contrast between Mr Callaghan’s position then and Mr Brown’s now illustrates how much politics – and the media’s coverage of it – has changed in the ensuing three decades.

The loss of an old mining seat like Ashfield was a truly catastrophic result for Labour – but no media pundits rushed into print demanding that Callaghan make way, and certainly no MPs did so.

Perhaps the key difference was that Callaghan’s personal popularity ratings always remained high – right up to his defeat by Mrs Thatcher in May 1979.

Maybe because he lacks “Sunny Jim’s” avuncular disposition, the voters’ attitude to Mr Brown seems entirely more visceral. It is not just his policies which are the issue, it is him personally.

So should Mr Brown now do the decent thing to spare his party any further carnage? Well, the arguments for and against are not straightforward.

The Labour mantra about the former Chancellor being the best man to steer the economy though the current choppy waters still just about holds true, if only for the lack of an obvious alternative.

In my post-Budget column in March, I wrote that if Mr Brown can succeed in guiding the economy through the current slowdown, he will in all probability win the election. Crewe notwithstanding, I stand by that claim.

I would add, however, that it has become increasingly clearer since then that the situation may be beyond even his legendary powers of economic management

A more persuasive reason not to change leaders at this stage is that Labour could not possibly get away with foisting two unelected Prime Ministers on the electorate in close succession.

Whoever took over would therefore be virtually obliged to call an immediate election that Labour would be bound to lose, thereby negating the whole point of changing leaders in the first place.

That said, if the situation gets much worse for the party between now and the autumn, MPs would have very little left to lose by gambling on another leadership change.

At some point, it may become simply a case of damage limitation. The question would not be so much “could a new leader win?” as “could a new leader save at least some of our seats?”

A couple of weeks ago, I ran the rule over some of the possible contenders to take over should Mr Brown fail to recover. My view then, and now, was that Darlington MP Alan Milburn represented the best option.

During the past week, there has been some considerable speculation that Mr Milburn will indeed challenge Mr Brown, with backing from his old chum, North Tyneside MP Stephen Byers.

Some would regard the former health secretary merely as a stalking horse. My view, for what it’s worth, is that he would be a very serious candidate.

He is the right age for No 10 and having served in Blair's Cabinet, but not in Brown's, can combine top-level experience with relative freshness, enabling him to more credibly claim to be “the change the country needs" than Mr Brown has been able to do.

Were he to stand for the leadership, Mr Milburn would invariably have to deal with a certain amount of mud-slinging over the reasons behind his original Cabinet resignation in 2003.

Although he maintained it was to enable him to be a father to his two young sons, there are many other theories, not all of which would be particularly helpful in the context of a leadership campaign.

Whatever the truth of it, I always believed that Alan Milburn had too many unfulfilled ambitions not to return to frontline politics one day.

Could this now be a case of "cometh the hour, cometh the man?"

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Barnacle Bill said...

One wonders if the best option for poor Gordon would be to call a General Election.
Yes he would probably loose it, but not by the margin he might if he hangs on till 2010.
He could then consolidate his position on the Opposition benches whilst watching Cameron try to wrestle with all the financial & economic problems we are going to experience in the next few years, then sweep back into No.10.

The Creator said...

The one thing you can say with absolute certainty is that if Brown remains PM until an general election in 2010, Labour won't just lose the election, it will be obliterated.

The party therefore has nothing to lose by ditching him now. If as a result a new leader feels obliged to call an election to avoid the taint of a second unelected PM in a year and Labour loses, as clearly it will, the new leader can then at least legitimately point to the fact that this was chiefly Brown's legacy, not his (hers?). And then get on with rebuilding the party.

But to hold back on booting out Brown for fearing of precipitating a blood bath within the party is to guarantee its virtual extinction. So it must act now.

I realise that it can take time to come to terms with the reality of 10-plus years of electoral supremacy's being overturned. It is hardly a surprise if most Labour MPs are currently walking around in a daze.

But if they hold back, they are effectively writing they collective death warrants. Ousting Brown is their hope, faint though it is.

davidoff said...

Brown, Balls and Harman need to go.
David Miliband best person to face Cameron.
Labour needs a headline - legislation to enforce "discipline" in the public and private sectors (school discipline, no drugs in prison, bank regulation, fat cat pay etc) would go down well. It's Brown territory, ironic he never did it.

Anonymous said...

I fear nothing can now save Labour. Another change of leadership would be dismissed as a desperation measure.
After Thursday, the question is no longer - will we have a Conservative Government?, but what kind? Matthew Parris has warned that the Cameron policy vacuum leaves the field open to "right-wing nutters, xenophobes, reactionaries and over-simplifiers". Melanie Phillips, clearly dismayed by the local election successes, warned they were in no way an endorsement of Green Dave and his dangerous lefty tendencies. The rest of us can only watch and hope the Parrisians outnumber the Melitants.

Stephen said...

"Cometh the hour, cometh the woman". It's going to be Harriet, she's been very carefully positioning herself for some time now. And she's spent a lot of time out with the public and 'listening'. It doesn't matter that she's not that great a politician (although she's looking rather more astute now than most people thought), she's the only one likely to strike the right chord with the electorate.

Anonymous said...

The PM should stay as Labour leader. Yhe party lost by equal margins to crewe in the by - election of 1968, and went into 1970 election as favourites. Lbaour can still win with the same leader. The tories would cheer their guys out of they got rid of the PM. No need for change we are oncourse.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Paris hated tony bliar and supported the british empire he is an extreme right winger. He will hate every labour leader. This PM can win again. I can assure you of that,

Anonymous said...

"Legendary powers of economic management" ... are you serious? Does anyone still believe this? He rode a global wave after inheriting an economy in great shape. He has been on a spending and borrowing binge virtually ever since yet the country has little to show for the billions that have gone. What's more, he complicated everything he touched in order to play stupid power games both inside and outside the party. Now the wind has changed and we're all going to suffer for his ineptitude. Please let's not continue the Gordon Brown = economic genius line and longer. It is a sorry urban myth that has finally been exposed.

Cyberleader said...

To backup the last comment, if Gordon Brown is such an economic genius what about his 2 billion pound gold sell off blunder?

hardly the act of an economic genius. He's just been lucky and now he is getting found out.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Alan Milburn put in charge of the last general election campaign but then Blair had to replace him with Brown when it didn't look like he could deliver?