Sunday, 7 June 2009

Sunday round-up: the half-time score

Last night's Saturday Newsnight special was a Match of the Day style half-time analysis, writes Matthew d'Ancona on the Spectator Coffee House blog.

In that case, the Sunday commentators seem to agree that the Prime Minister, having gone behind in the first minute to a surprise strike from James Purnell, is now 2-1 up (Mandelson; D.Miliband own goal) with away goals in hand. With apologies to Caroline Flint or the football analogy, her own spirited effort having been ruled out for offside after she began her run on goal too late.

Despite Brown's rotation policy, he plans to field a mostly unchanged side. And it is not now clear whether the Rebels will even take to the field for the second leg, having failed to appoint a manager or name a team. Stephen Byers is warming up, and may bring on the tenacious Hazel Blears on the right and bruiser Charles Clarke who is unlikely to take any prisoners in the middle of the park. Veteran John Reid, on loan from Celtic, may make a cameo appearance. But the team looks lop-sided and may be exposed down the flanks, having no naturally left-sided players.

In other words, the Sunday commentators seem to be pretty united in their view that a coup this week is very probably off.

Andrew Rawnsley explains the restraints on a Labour act of regicide "which would have incalculable consequences".

The would-be assassins have proved more indecisive and chaotic than the king they would kill. The plotters only have a slogan: save our seats. They lack a manifesto, they don't have a plausible endgame and they are left without a credible challenger now that his senior colleagues have agreed to carry on serving in Mr Brown's cabinet ... To see these events through the old prism of the Blairite/Brownite split is to misjudge the gravity of Labour's situation and the complexity of its dilemma.

He also offers a very lightly coded swipe at Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee:

That makes it easy to attack Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and David Miliband as dithering cowards for not dealing the death blow to Gordon Brown when they were presented with the chance, though I can't help laughing when that charge is laid by those who recommended him to us as the messiah just two years ago.

The Observer condemns the rebellion as a 'shambles' and says Labour should get on with governing.

The rebels' vision of electoral redemption relies on a critical mass of discontent forcing Mr Brown to stand nobly aside. It won't happen. The prime minister has made it clear he will fight to the end. So the choice now for Labour MPs is between debilitating guerrilla warfare against an entrenched Gordon Brown or acceptance that he will lead the party into the next election. Either way, that election is probably lost. But if Labour can regain some collective composure and start addressing the electorate instead of itself, it may still salvage a year of dignified government from the wreckage of this parliamentary term.

The Independent on Sunday editorial writers think Labour should stick with Brown and that "Mr, Mrs or Ms Rebel" have miscalculated.

And what of the results so far? Lamentable for Labour, but no great shakes for the Conservatives either. Despite everything that has happened, and a ferocious media narrative of Mr Brown's uselessness, the projection from the county council elections is for a Cameron majority at a general election of just 22 seats. Might that suggest the game is still live, that there is something yet to play for? We accept Gordon Brown has little in the way of easy charm, at least in performing his public duties. We accept that his tactical abilities are suspect and that he is struggling with a grand vision. What we reject is the Labour rebel calculation that to dump him benefits their party, or the nation's economy.

Matthew d'Ancona, having believed Purnell's move was a death blow, now suggests that the "cowardly" Cabinet has shifted the odds back to the PM, though not ruling out a backbench coup whose disorganised nature "is its weakness – does it truly exist? – but also its strength".

In 1990, Michael Heseltine acted upon Sir Geoffrey's cue. But imagine if Hezza had instead said: "You know what, Geoff? I reckon I'll pass on the tragic-conflict-wrestling today, if that's okay with you." This is exactly what happened after Mr Purnell displayed the Sideburns of Courage. Far from following his lead, and marching into the political space created, David Miliband and Alan Johnson did precisely nothing. Mr Johnson, after posturing for weeks as the Pearly Dauphin, accepted the job of Home Secretary like an obedient employee of the month at the local postal depot. Mr Miliband, fond of calling for a "new phase", decided to stick with the old phase and stay as Foreign Secretary. What a pair of girly men, hiding timorously from the call of duty and of history. This was "behind-the-sofa" government. By Friday morning, we had moved from 1990 to 1995, the year in which John Major called his enemies' bluff,

And John Rentoul - leading the 'AJ for PM' campaign - sticks to his view that the PM will be brought down not this week, but in the Autumn.

What Purnell has really done is make it more certain that Brown will go before the election. The point about a dress rehearsal is important psychologically. One of the barriers to a successful coup is that people cannot visualise it. Last week, we saw how it might happen. We saw more of Alan Johnson and it did not seem ridiculous that he might be prime minister. Gordon Brown has survived, only to be more certain of going next time.

That was Rentoul's view last week too.

What seems more doubtful is his argument that James Purnell's resignation makes this scenario more likely. Most in the PLP - on both sides of the argument - will think that Purnell has now created the 'put up and shut up' moment.

Rentoul suggests a messy draw, without holding a penalty shoot out, is now the best the rebels can hope for.

But the timing is never right. There will be a much reduced appetite for another round of plotting later ahead of the party conference. If the rebel aim this week is simply to live to fight another day, then this looks more and more like a coup which will never happen.

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