Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A cunning plan

The Times today reports a poll finding that people are now so terminally fed up with this government that even getting rid of Gordon Brown won't help them. That's the way I read it, too. That there are many in the government, and in the press, who apparently don't get this obvious truth demonstrates (apart from mere desperation, of course) the continuing emptiness of the New Labour project, with its relentless focus on personality.

New Labour has always been, at the most profound level, about personal enmity and the manipulation of power. When things were going well, the mutual antagonism of its leading figures mattered little; it might even have been a source of creative tension. The Blair-Brown balance operated to some extent like the gravitational attraction of twin stars, each preventing the other from flying off into space. Without Blair, it did not take long to collapse, as Gordon Brown's most unattractive features were given free rein. But it would have been the same had Blair followed through with his occasional whims to get rid of Gordon. Cut adrift from its shoring in reality, the essential fantasy land of Tony Blair would have been cruelly exposed.

It was always and only about those two, and possibly Alistair Campbell. If Brown goes, there will be nothing left. But I guess they'll just have to find that out for themselves. As it is, the anti-Brownites (i.e. the once loyal Blairites; but even they don't want Blair back any more) are determined to oust him, so mesmerised by his obvious failings of personality that they have confused them with failings of policy or with inability to do the job. They appear seriously to believe that a new leader would represent a new start, or would magically revive the fortunes of the party. As I've said before, it is essentially a magical belief. It is a measure of how much they hate Gordon Brown (no doubt for excellent reasons) rather than a reflection of political reality. What the economic crisis has hardened is the desire of the electorate, already apparent even in the latter days of Blair, for a new government. This one is now widely seen to have failed. It has also been around for too long. Could Jack Straw turn it around? Could David Miliband? Is that really the choice? Whatever his "psychological flaws", you would have to be a pretty diehard Brown-hater to believe that either of those two would be an improvement.

There's another factor to consider. If Brown is prevailed upon to step down, expect powerful rumblings from the backbenches. He would soon start to put his legendary plotting skills to good use undermining the traitor (as he saw it) who ousted him. Having Gordon Brown's undying enmity has never been an advantage, as Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and many other once-prominent Labour politicians have learned to their cost. And given the state of the economy, the public finances and the rate of inflation the new prime minister would not benefit from any feel-good factor to counteract the Brown factor. MacBroon would surely have his revenge.

The choice for Brown doesn't look appetizing: cling on in the face of mounting discontent, or throw in the towel. But there's a third possibility that no-one (to my knowledge) has considered. Call it the suicide strategy, as in suicide bomber. If most of the Cabinet went to Brown, as their predecessors once went to Margaret Thatcher, and said "We can no longer support you", the prime minister would be within his rights to go to the Queen and ask for an immediate dissolution of Parliament. He would then be able to take his case (such as it is) to the country. And the Cabinet, however much they privately hated him, would be forced to rally round and fight the election campaign to the best of their ability. Otherwise there would be a complete meltdown, Crewe and Nantwich or even Glasgow East writ large.

If Brown won this snap election, all talk of leadership crises would be over. If, as is far more likely, he lost, he would at least have been properly defeated in battle. It would lance a boil. He would not be able to mope around, Ted Heath-like, blaming everyone else. Well, this being Brown, he probably would. But in those circumstances his sulking wouldn't damage the party nearly so much as if he were toppled by an internal coup.

Brown's personality may not chime with many in the parliamentary Labour party, but his instincts still do; certainly far more than any putative "Blairite" successor, who comes to the job without Blair's charm, Blair's novelty or Blair's lucky timing. But I still don't think it will come to that. If Brown doesn't want to be forced out, he doesn't have to be. And if he were to threaten an immediate general election, with its probable Labour meltdown, even the strongest of his political enemies would be unlikely to call his bluff.

1 comment:

valdemar said...

Labour's problem is, as you say, a conspicuous lack of talent. There is no one of the stature of (say) the late Robin Cook, who was often parodied and certainly not an obvious leader. But he was at least recognisable.

Spike Milligan in his war memoirs refers somewhere to a terrible ENSA concert, and a singer whose song 'we forgot even as he sang it'. That sums up the Millipedes and others - you forget who they are while their name is actually on screen. Hopeless.

That said, a majority that large is hard to overturn. I suspect that a putative Cameron administration would not have a lot of wiggle room on contentious issues. And, given the recent survey on the attitudes of Tory candidates, it could end up mired in rows not dissimilar to those current knackering the CofE.