Economic turbulence has rocked the rebels, but steadied Brown

By Andrew Grice
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Indy Politics

"We would be mad to get rid of Gordon," said the minister, a Brown loyalist who wants him to lead the party into the next election. "There is no one else with his experience to get the country through the global financial crisis. Would you want David Miliband or David Cameron in charge? Forget it. The rebel MPs can't even agree on a candidate. The voters would not forgive us for undermining a prime minister trying to lead us safely through a crisis."

It all made sense. Perhaps reports of Mr Brown's demise had been greatly exaggerated. Then, to my surprise, the minister added: "Of course, I don't think he can turn it round. And they will get him out, sooner or later."

This week's turbulence was not confined to the financial markets. To describe the Labour Party as in a turbulent state as it begins its annual conference in Manchester today is an understatement.

Yet after a rollercoaster week, Mr Brown is in a stronger position than he was at the start. The calls for a leadership election by a dozen MPs were more of a spontaneous cry for help rather than a well-planned coup. All week, rumours swirled around Westminster that ministers or their parliamentary aides were about to resign in protest at Mr Brown's performance. One minister rang journalists at 3am to deny an unpublished rumour that he was about to quit.

Sensing the wind in their sails, the rebels planned to keep up the pressure on Mr Brown as the conference approached. But now they have gone quiet. They agree with Mr Brown on one thing. As he told the Cabinet on Tuesday: "The eyes of the country will be on us in Manchester. At a time when they are going through economic problems, people want to see the Government steering them through it. It would be unforgivable if they saw the Labour Party fighting amongst themselves."

At first, it looked like a desperate attempt to buy some more time. But as the week wore on, the penny dropped for the rebel MPs. They realised that it would send a terrible signal to the voters to undermine a prime minister trying to shelter the country from a global storm.

This weekend, the Brown critics are having a bit of turbulence of their own. Some say their ceasefire should last only until the conference ends on Wednesday. They believe about six cabinet ministers would move against Mr Brown if Labour loses the very difficult Glenrothes by-election, expected in late October or early November. The plan is to get as many ministers and their parliamentary private secretaries as possible to resign if the Prime Minister refuses to go.

But wiser heads among the Brown critics are now wondering whether they could go ahead if there is still turmoil on the financial markets. The answer is: probably not. Would Mr Miliband, Alan Johnson or Harriet Harman run for the leadership in such circumstances? Highly unlikely.

So some Brown opponents believe that, unless the global storm calms over the next month, it would be better to push him out next June after what are expected to be poor results in European and local elections.

There is no consensus yet. Some anti-Brownites are arguing that, if they want to get him out, it is better to do it quickly. They say it's dishonest for cabinet ministers publicly to support Mr Brown while giving nods and winks to backbenchers that they will kill him soon.

The cracks in the Cabinet are starting to show. John Hutton and James Purnell refused to condemn the rebels calling for a leadership election. Then it emerged that some ministers were unimpressed by a cabinet presentation on how to attack the Tories, saying the real problem was Labour's weaknesses in the voters' eyes, not the Tories. So Mr Brown has a breathing space and it may last longer than the rebels planned. Some Labour folk say that, as "the architect of the bubble," he can't be the man who clears up the mess now it has burst. But he got some credit for the merger of Lloyds TSB and HBOS, and his tough words on bad City practices were followed by decisive action. If he can maintain that, learn from past mistakes and admit his failings in his conference speech on Tuesday, a stuttering autumn fightback may finally achieve some momentum.

So Mr Brown may have a better Labour conference than we might have expected a week ago. It may prove only a temporary respite. But the worse the global crisis gets, the better his chances of surviving the storm in his own party.

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