Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Why this plot will fail

It still seems likely that the moment of maximum danger for Gordon Brown's leadership of the Labour Party into the General Election was the evening of Thursday June 4th 2009 when James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet, as the polls closed in the local and European elections, and other Cabinet members declined to follow him.

That evening, several of the most credible members of the political commentariat declared that Brown could not survive, as set out in my dissenting post that night.

And this point from last June as to why those judgements were premature, seems to me to remain the central point today.

A single resignation can not enforce the departure of the Prime Minister; that would take a collective refusal to serve ... If the Cabinet remain supportive of Brown, then the focus of media attention might shift to the backbenches. But the formal leadership challenge mechanism - nominations for a named candidate; followed by a special conference card vote to decide if a leadership contest proceeds - is in practice inoperable, surely by design.

So the point of backbench pressure - if there were sufficient signatures to put a contest on the agenda - is really to get the Cabinet to act.

Very little has changed since then, except that the election campaign has effectively begun.

Both Jonathan Freedland and John Rentoul (the chief champion of the AJ4PM campaign) explained this morning, from different perspectives, why any pre-election change is very likely off. Today's backbench strike does little to change their central points. After the next 48 hours, I would expect the focus of media attention will increasingly shift to the 'next generation' and post-election future Labour leadership stakes, as it already has to a large extent as Rentoul's column and Nick Watt's rather good, balanced and fair Miliband v Miliband profile in yesterday's Guardian shows that it already has.

The intervention from Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon is in one way different from those around New Year of Charles Clarke and Barry Sheerman, in that they are not repeating previous public calls. Clearly, any move against the PM would need much broader support than previous failed bids have had.

But the nature and timing of the intervention may still prove a sign of weakness in three ways.

Firstly, it is much easier to present as a "Blairite" intervention, in contrast to (say) a Hewitt-Cruddas or Mullin-Hewitt intervention, which would have been much more impactful were it possible. So that would imply that non-Blairite support has failed to respond to calls to lead a revolt. Rumours of a right-left pact, involving Compass, would seem to have been much exaggerated (and, indeed, denied by Compass).

Secondly, and probably crucially, it suggests that they have failed to get any Cabinet minister to be part of the, following unfounded rumours last night about Tessa Jowell, who has dismissed the possibility of a resignation, as the New Statesman reported first.

Thirdly, the timing of the interevention hasn't helped it, though it is very unlikely this could be thought decisive, except in demonstrating the lack of ruthless assassin like abilities which have been a consistent feature of these sporadic attempts.

While it may be said in jest that the wrong kind of snow or a strong performance from the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Questions have harmed the rebel cause. But the mechanisms of various plots (from hotmail, to texts to PLP circulars) have changed, the central point would seem to be that there has not been enough support to bring about a change.

There is also now a long time before next week's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Unless there is some very dramatic series of unexpected interventions before then, that last "crucial test" of Parliamentary opinion may well finally prove another moment when support rallies around the Prime Minister.

That's how I would see the state of play anyway. Whether this analysis proves right or wrong, what can surely be agreed that this latest putsch attempt must be the final one.

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