What’s eating Labour from within?

Bagehot in The Economist points out that the Times Populus poll has the Tories just 4 points ahead of Labour. If Gordon were leader, that would extend to nine. That accords with Blair’s Labour blog critics like manic (well worth a hour, scrolling and surfing) who think Blair crossed a moral line in Iraq, and to whom a future Tory government is simply restorative retribution. But it does it make sense for Gordon launch a coup d’etat just now? What asks Dizzy, was Tom Watson (see plausible deniability) thinking? However Martin Bright in the New Statesman comes up with the most convincing explanation (so far) as to what was really going on:

Early last week I was briefed by one of those closest to Blair that he would have to announce his departure plans before party conference or risk open revolt in the party. This was the intention of his interview with the Times, but the plan backfired spectacularly. It was a terrible error of judgement. Instead of providing a clear exit strategy, as even his close political allies had hoped, the Prime Minister lectured backbenchers to stop discussing specific dates and opened up the possibility that he could go on and on. The effect was the opposite of that intended: the wounds of the decade-long battle between Prime Minister and Chancellor were reopened in a series of press articles that plunged the factions within Labour into a new round of sectarian conflict.

So panic amongst the Brownites (and the ‘moderate middle’) that Blair was making a move for ‘permanent leader’ status (see Guido’s Aznar scenario)?

Whatever, this is a fight with no substantive policy divide, argues Polly Toynbee, those contrived to embarass the Chancellor (ie, a scorched earth stratagem):

The Labour party has no meaningful ideological schism, (certainly smaller than the Tories’). If John Reid, say, puts up against Brown for the loyalist cause, this would be no re-run of Benn v Healey, or only history repeated as farce. Apart from the few on the far left represented by John McDonnell, the great majority of MPs are New Labour, for neither Blair nor Brown, and they agree on most important things. You can find plenty of differences on issues ranging from nuclear power to constitutional reform, but these would criss-cross the Blair-Brown ranks haphazardly. This battle is essentially personal, not ideological.

So when the Blairites say their only purpose is to ensure the future is New Labour, they deceive themselves. Brown is the co-architect of New Labour policy and New Labour economics. He is no back-to-the-future socialist, though some might wish it. Now the Blair camp has broken cover, it is plain the tiny hard core aims to keep Brown out; ideology is only a fig leaf. In their desperation to create a difference, they toss in rightwing hand grenades, such as Stephen Byers’s proposal to abolish inheritance tax. Not even the Tories suggest that – yet there was no slap-down from Blair.

Expect many more rightwing suggestions, designed to paint Gordon red. Any leadership contest from a New Labourite will turn into a personal grudge fight, inventing differences to hide what is ancient loathing of a “psychologically flawed” man, blending into the fears of those who know that Brown would demote or sack them.

In this mood, is Labour capable of conducting a leadership election as elegantly as the Tories did, leaving not a bruise on the victor? Can they save themselves? In all political feuds both sides self-righteously believe that they are their party’s only true saviour.

Several things strike me as being relevant:

The Chancellor and the PM have long since exercised joint central scrutiny over all government policy. Gordon, by and large, had the upper hand in domestic policy, and Tony a freedom with all matters overseas. This afforded them the luxury of being able to assert considerable downward pressure throughout government in way not seen in recent government history. Since Blair announced his departure it has released some of the downward pressure, but has increased manic speculation about the future within the Westminster village.

This is not so much a succession as an attempt to transform a dual monarchy (ala Austria Hungary) into a single one. The two arrived in power together, but will leave government separately. It is for once an acid test of just how solid this Blair/Brown split actually is. So what are its defining qualities: ambition, loyalty, or (Naomi Klein forbid) brand?

Matthew d’Ancona has an intelligent (as opposed to belligerent) Tory view on the damage to the Blair brand:

This First Law of Cameronism, he explained, had an important subclause: Blair himself could beat Blair, by contaminating his own brand to the point where he could no longer plausibly hold office. All the same, the fundamental concession offered by this shadow Cabinet member was a huge one: after 12 years, the Conservatives themselves have still not found a way of defeating the Labour party’s most electorally successful leader, a politician whose record of parliamentary majorities exceeds even Margaret Thatcher’s.

The Prime Minister may yet go into political remission, survive a little longer, pull off his usual party conference trick of buying time. His aides say he would like to wait until 31 May to announce his departure. But even if he lingers that long, he will be a political wraith, barely in office and certainly not in power.

The game is definitely up — less than 18 months after he was re-elected with a comfortable parliamentary majority on the basis of an explicit promise to serve a full third term. ‘There have been all these stories rolling round that maybe I might stand for election but stand down in year one, year two,’ he said in October 2004. ‘I’m not going to do that.’ Oh yes you are, Prime Minister.

If he gets to May 29th, it will just about be year three. But that’s, perhaps, a pedantic splitting of hairs.

Last word (for now) to Martin Bright again:

Now the focus turns to the cabinet, where support is fast draining away, and in particular to Gordon Brown. The Chancellor holds all the cards. The New Statesman understands he has already demanded an immediate one-to-one meeting with Blair to thrash out a detailed timetable for the transition. A resignation date of 31 May 2007 will not satisfy the Brown camp, which is now convinced that Blair wishes to leave his departure as late as possible within the year he has given himself in order for a “stop Gordon” candidate to emerge.

In his interview with this week’s NS, David Miliband has more forcefully than ever before thrown his weight, as keeper of the Blairite flame, behind Brown. Others have been more coy. Alan Johnson has not ruled himself out and John Reid is said to be straining at the leash. Brown has so far kept his counsel, although a piece by his trusted lieutenant Ed Balls in the ultra-Blairite Observer had the Chancellor’s fingerprints all over it.

That “orderly transition” so prized by Brown is now fading into the distance, but he still believes there is one last chance of redemption for Blair. The PM must meet the Chancellor in the next few days and agree the words for a public declaration of a jointly agreed exit strategy.

This may be one humiliation too far for the Prime Minister. But if he refuses to co-operate, the coup will get bloodier yet.

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  • Young Fogey

    The first point worth remembering is that in the latter days of Thatcher, Labour were more than 20% ahead in the polls. (see http://www.ipsos-mori.com/polls/trends/voting-all-trends.shtml )And even poor Iain Duncan Smith had the odd good poll.

    Cameron has restored the Tories’ credibility with the media, yes, but has he done it with the voters? It’s far too early to tell.

    As for Gordon Brown and his putative annointing as Labour leader, I’m rather inclined to agree with what Charles Clarke said this morning, even though I’m not a Labour supporter. If Brown really had the capacity to be leader, he would have become so after the Granita restaurant, after Blair was clearly out of step with the country on the war, after Labour lost 50 seats at the General Election, etc., etc. He didn’t because he has no killer instinct and no real leadership skills. He might well become Labour leader, but he isn’t going to be a good one.

    And the left will end up hating him – they forget that he’s co-author of New Labour and just as pro-American as Blair. Cue more Labour infighting, unless Labour have the sense to put someone like John Reid in (not Alan Johnson or Millburn – these are not serious suggestions to anyone outside the No. 10 press office).