Thursday 4 June 2009

The armistice ends

With a polling day political broadcasting embargo in place until 10pm, and the focus on getting the vote out, the leadership/reshuffle crisis has been in a state of suspended animation.

The BBC may well regret not having an Election Night special tonight or tomorrow. If Question Time has been pre-recorded as usual, then it may be in the strange position of doing post-match analysis of Wednesday's events while Newsnight and the 24-hour news channels are trying to move the story on. (There will not be many results until Friday, but the BBC does not have an election special until Sunday night.The blogosphere attempts to fill the vacuum with two marathon online radio sessions, hosted by multimedia brand Iain Dale from the right and Hopi Sen from the left for PlayRadioUK from 9am - 4pm on Friday, and again on Sunday night from 6pm).

This has been a situation made for the online rumour mill - and Daniel Finkelstein has been offering a rolling resource of the various speculations. My own wildcard pitches of Yvette for Chancellor and something for JK Rowling have now been trumped by the rumoured hiring of Alan Sugar.

But there are perhaps two problems with how much value the internet rumour mill can add to events.

Firstly, nobody, however well informed in the usual course of events, can claim to have a helicopter eye view of the crisis, particularly when it comes to working out not just the battleplans for either side but how they might alter on contact with the enemy.

Secondly, if there is a game-changing intervention on either side, would it increase its effectiveness to allow it to dribble out? Surprise was always the key hallmark of a Gordon Brown spectacular - from the independence of the Bank of England in 1997 to the return of Peter Mandelson last Autumn. (If only the same approach had been taken to the ramping up of the non-election in 2007).

Similarly, would a Cabinet assassination be briefed in advance to newspaper editors, or indeed the increasingly mighty blogosphere? There are many more observers than players in this crisis: real information is at a premium.

There is some sense in which briefing, rumour and a media could be helpful to those hoping to plot a coup. Part of the strategy last summer and Autumn was to try to create a rolling sense of too much noise for any message to get through without a change.

But, this time around, that strategy would be a sign of weakness on the part of those plotting. There is intense media interest, but there may be limited returns on trying to use that to exaggerate the scale of discontent. There will be a put up or shut up moment when all cards will have to be played - and surely very soon. Perhaps one lesson of last Autumn is that what happens in the media is secondary to what happens in the Parliamentary party and Cabinet. The media will hardly talk down a crisis until all cinders are extinguished.

Nobody knows what will happen. I include myself entirely within that.

My hunch is this. A political coup can not be organised on hotmail. If a serious plot exists, surely it will need public leadership before midnight tonight. If, by Sunday morning, a reshuffle has taken place and the newspapers are still speculating about speculation about what either the Cabinet or the backbenches might do, then I suspect that the chances of regicide will have receded.

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