Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why Johnson will still take over in the end

Gordon Brown may have survived the Cabinet crisis and the Euro-elections debacle, but Alan Johnson is still in the driving seat to lead Labour into the next election. Here's today's Journal column.

Shortly after coming to power in 1997, the newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Blair asked his political mentor, Roy Jenkins, to carry out a wide-ranging inquiry into the voting system.

Lord Jenkins’ report, published the following year, recommended a form of proportional representation for Westminster based on the so-called ‘alternative vote’ in which candidates are ranked in order of preference.

Mr Blair, whose party had committed in its 1997 manifesto to holding a referendum on the voting system, was genuinely torn as to how to proceed, with Robin Cook and Paddy Ashdown among those urging him to cross the Rubicon.

But in the end, he was talked out of it by an alliance of senior figures within his own Cabinet, and Labour’s plans for voting reform were kicked, seemingly permanently, into that bit of St James’s Park where they can’t quite get the mower.

The senior Labour figures in question included the then deputy leader John Prescott, who has always been hostile to PR, and Jack Straw, who put the boot into the Jenkins Report in the Commons almost before the ink on it was dry.

But among them also was Chancellor Gordon Brown, as ever playing to the Old Labour gallery in his efforts to undermine Mr Blair and shore up his own power-base within the party.

More than a decade on, and facing the loss of the power he has dedicated his adult life to acquiring, Mr Brown has decided voting reform might be worth another look as part of a wide-ranging package of constitutional measures to restore trust in politics.

But as the Good Book says, you reap what you sow, and Mr Brown’s apparent deathbed conversion to PR has surely come too late to be taken seriously, still less as a means of relaunching his troubled premiership.

On the one hand, one can admire Mr Brown’s resilience in attempting to bounce back from last week’s Cabinet crisis and Sunday’s Euro-election drubbing by launching a set of proposals which would transform the British system of government.

On the other, you can simply view him as deluded. After all, this is a man who cannot even order his own Cabinet around, let alone carry out what would be the biggest set of constitutional reforms since Magna Carta.

The tragedy for the Prime Minister is that constitutional reform – or cleaning up politics in tabloid-speak - really could have been his “Big Idea,” had he been bolder about it at the start of his premiership.

Now, nearly two years on, it simply looks like a belated reaction to the continuing tide of parliamentary sleaze on the one hand, and on the other, Mr Brown’s desperate need to find some sort of purpose to his remaining in power.

There are essentially two reasons why the Prime Minister survived the coup attempt led by former Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell when he stormed out of the Cabinet a week ago last Thursday.

The first and most obvious is the that Labour MPs do not want to be pitchforked into fighting a general election which they know they would lose.

Rightly or wrongly, the idea that a new leader would be obliged to hold an immediate general election has taken hold at Westminster, and the line was being heavily spun by Mr Brown’s supporters last weekend.

Looked at from this perspective, the point at issue for Labour MPs at their crunch meeting on Monday evening was not so much whether the Prime Minister should stand down before the election, as when.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there is no way the Labour Party is going to allow Mr Brown to lead it into the next election, for the simple reason that it knows there is no way the public is going to vote for another five years of him.

But given that the election has to be held next Spring anyway, there is an inescapable logic to delaying any change in the leadership for now.

If, say, the change were to be delayed until the New Year, it would enable a new leader to take over close enough to the election not to have to bring it any further forward.

What Mr Brown has done over the past week is not so much “seen off” the threat to his leadership, as earned the right a dignified resignation at some point between the party conferences and Christmas.

But the second reason why the Prime Minister survived was quite simply the identity of those trying to unseat him - “wrong plot, wrong plotters” as one MP put it.

Whatever Mr Brown’s shortcomings, the great majority of Labour MPs do not want a Blairite restoration in any shape or form, and as soon as it became clear that the coup was essentially a Blairite enterprise, the whole thing was doomed to failure.

Mr Purnell is undoubtedly a bright lad, but he suffers from the considerable drawback of looking like Tony Blair’s junior research assistant, which indeed he was until he became an MP.

Likewise Ms Blears is a doughty campaigner and a highly effective communicator, but her nickname in the PLP, Mrs Pepperpot, gives some idea of the level of esteem in which she is held by her colleagues.

In a revealing BBC radio interview on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP David Miliband said Mr Brown would remain in power because “the main contender Alan Johnson” was supporting the Prime Minister.

This tell us three things. First, that Mr Brown is now dependent on Mr Johnson’s support. Second, that Mr Johnson can take over any time he wants. Third, that when that time comes, Mr Miliband will support him.

The Labour Party has finally reached a settled will on the future of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but it is not that he will lead them into the next general election for good or ill.

It is that he will be replaced, at a decent interval and in a suitably dignified way, by the man he has just appointed Home Secretary.

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The Half-Blood Welshman said...

As ever, Paul, great post. The Iain Duncan Smith parallel seems to be becoming painfully clear. He had to endure a similar crisis after the 2003 local elections, as I recall, with a resignation by a frontbencher calling on him to resign, but he battled on to the party conference before being thrown out in the face of continued poor opinion polls and by-election results.

Mark Thompson said...

Yes, great post Paul and I agree with your analysis.

I just wonder if Brown has realised this yet? I suspect he will be out in the Autumn and Johnson will promise an election in "early Spring" which will give him enough time during his honeymoon to do a few things to differentiate himself from his predecessor and hope to mitigate the losses and possibly even get a hung parliament.

James Higham said...

the so-called ‘alternative vote’ in which candidates are ranked in order of preference.

You mean 'preferential voting', as in the Australian system?

Wrinkled Weasel said...

It must be a truism that when people start quoting the Bible and Shakespeare about a leader, you know the game is up.

A fascinating piece that rings very true.

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Anonymous said...

Saw this header and thought it was about Boris. Thank gawd it wasn't.

For my part, I dobut the wisdom of Labour MPs sticking the boot in to the leader so close to a General Election myself.

Paul Linford said...

Well, it could well be about Boris too Rupa, come to think of it!