Vote Labour, the party of lemmings

Self-indulgent, self-aggrandising and self-harming: the Hoon–Hewitt initiative has stymied Gordon Brown's fledgling recovery just as he had David Cameron on the back foot
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Indy Politics

On Wednesday evening, as temperatures dropped below zero, a Labour activist had been preparing to put in three hours of door-to-door election leafleting in his marginal constituency. But when he reached his front door, he turned around and returned to the warmth of his living room. "What's the point, why should we go out in the freezing cold and snow posting election leaflets when we have to defend this shit?" he said. "People have never been angrier."

The "shit" the activist referred to was the botched coup by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt earlier that day. The spectacle of two former cabinet ministers, whose priorities do not seem to feature the Labour Party, attempting to bring down a Prime Minister whose fortunes had appeared to look a little brighter, was too much to bear. As the mercury has plummeted, so has morale. Now, four days on from the attempted coup, Gordon Brown has been forced to offer concessions to a string of senior cabinet ministers, and members of his top table are at war with each other.

If Labour had any chance of denying David Cameron a victory on polling day, it seems to have faded. Last Monday, the Tory leader's campaign for Downing Street faltered over his party's policy on tax breaks for married couples. It demonstrated how, with volatile polls, Labour's fortunes could have changed. A week on, senior party figures on all sides stand accused of throwing it all away.

The "snowstorm plot" has damaged the chances of some who want to succeed Mr Brown as leader after the election; for others, it has strengthened their position for the top job. Incredibly, senior MPs are now preoccupied with the election after next: the contest to succeed Mr Brown.

One Labour insider, borrowing from Tony Blair, said: "The kaleidoscope has been shaken... it is now a little clearer who can win, and who cannot win, the leadership."

The biggest loser appears to be David Miliband. He was one of the six cabinet ministers named by plotters – the ministers say wrongly – as being prepared to quit. Yet in the hours following the failed coup, Mr Miliband became the focus of anger of Blairite rebels and Brown loyalists.

To the rebels, he had, for the fifth time since 2007, failed to take the opportunity to challenge Mr Brown, and appeared weak. To the Prime Minister's supporters, he appeared treacherous by taking six and a half hours to back Mr Brown, and then only equivocally.

The Foreign Secretary's backers say the attention on him alone is unfair, and that he was put in an impossible situation. If he had resigned, it could have put paid to his own leadership ambitions. On the other hand, say allies, he felt could not put out a "gushing" statement because that would have been dishonest. Instead, his statement at 6.53pm on Wednesday in which he said he supported the campaign "for a Labour Government that [Brown] is leading" was "honest".

Relations between Mr Brown and the Foreign Secretary are at their lowest point. While the Prime Minister has held meetings with other senior ministers – even finding time for Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, who was one of the six – there has been no such head-to-head with the Foreign Secretary. It was left to Peter Mandelson, once again, to be a calming hand: he spoke by telephone to Mr Miliband during his period of silence on Wednesday afternoon urging him not to "overreact". It was a repeat of the Business Secretary's intervention last June after James Purnell quit the Cabinet.

Mr Miliband's supporters dismiss suggestions that his leadership chances have been permanently damaged and insist that the "dust needs to settle" on the turbulent events of last week. However, as he has been weakened by the episode, two significant figures have become stronger.

The first is his brother, Ed. Over Christmas, the Climate Change Secretary indicated to his elder brother that he would give him a free run for the leadership. The failed coup appears to have changed that situation. The younger Miliband came across as the magnanimous senior sibling on Wednesday afternoon during his brother's long silence, saying he was "sure" his brother would support the Prime Minister. Ed Miliband's supporters say he is now in a strong position at the front of the field.

The second figure who gains directly from Mr Miliband's weakness is not even in the Cabinet: Jon Cruddas. His name has barely been mentioned in the past four days, but he could emerge as one of the most significant figures in the battle for succession. Friends of the MP, who has long talked about a coalition of the right and left of the party, have not ruled out some form of "dream ticket" with David Miliband.

The Foreign Secretary is short of support among left-wing MPs and the unions, and would need the backing of an influential figure like Mr Cruddas, who came third in the 2007 deputy leadership contest. However, there is a growing possibility that Mr Cruddas will stand himself. For months, Mr Cruddas has downplayed his leadership ambitions, even in private, but events have concentrated minds in his camp. A friend said: "If he has the chance he will go for it."

For Ed Balls, the failed coup has dealt him a poor hand. He can still count on Mr Brown's support in a future contest, but little else. In meetings with ministers, including Alistair Darling, the Prime Minister was told that Mr Balls must be reined in. Mr Brown had no choice but to agree.

Mr Balls, writing in The Independent on Sunday, defends his strategy, appearing to place himself at loggerheads with the Chancellor.

No 10 had been tipped off, from inside the rebel camp, at about 11am on Wednesday that Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt were going to speak out. As if to underscore the importance of keeping the Chancellor happy, it was Mr Darling whom Mr Brown saw first after the letter was released at 12.25pm. The two men left the Commons chamber together, and as MPs filed out around them in the corridor directly behind the Speaker's Chair, they exchanged a brief "shall we talk?" before going into Mr Brown's office.

Mr Darling's aides denied he asked the Prime Minister to consider his position. In fact, he didn't need to. Mr Brown knew he had to move quickly to reassure his Chancellor about his role in Labour's election strategy.

As Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt toured the TV studios, Lord Mandelson ran the response from the Downing Street "war room".

Meanwhile, Mr Brown's peace talks continued. After the regular meeting of Labour's parliamentary committee, including Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and backbenchers, he returned to Downing Street at about 3pm. Ms Harman and Mr Straw remained in the Commons, then the deputy leader received a call from the Prime Minister, summoning the pair to No 10.

In their meeting at 4pm, Mr Straw and Ms Harman impressed on the Prime Minister that senior people with experience should be given more of a role in the election campaign. Ministers wanted to know that he had "a plan" for the election.

Later that evening, both ministers were named by rebels as one of six who had been ready to quit. Both strenuously denied the charge. Mr Straw had bumped into Mr Hoon the night before in a Commons corridor, but the Justice Secretary was given no indication of the plot, friends insist.

Other ministers unhappy at being left out have been reassured. Douglas Alexander, another of the Cabinet Six, has been "love-bombed" by Lord Mandelson. Their roles have now been clarified: the International Development Secretary will remain election co-ordinator while Lord Mandelson will oversee strategy and chair morning planning meetings.

By making concessions, Mr Brown has lost ground, despite seeing off a third attempted coup. Tomorrow, Mr Brown will go to Labour's parliamentary party meeting to rally MPs for the fight ahead. But what everyone fears most is that the election is already lost and their leaders are already eyeing the next battle: to succeed Mr Brown.

WHO BENEFITS...

The winners...

Peter Mandelson

The Business Secretary, in a repeat of his performance after last June's attempted coup, emerged as a steady hand: spoke to David Miliband on Wednesday and ran the response from No 10. Benefits from Mr Brown's agreement to rein in Ed Balls

Alistair Darling

Unhappy about the core vote strategy. Benefits from the checking of Mr Balls' influence. Made it clear he had won the argument yesterday when he said "Gordon accepts" that tough spending cuts were needed

Ed Miliband

Previously indicated that he might give brother David a clear run for Labour leadership, but now supporters want him to run. Emerging as the leading Brownite candidate ahead of Mr Balls

Jon Cruddas

There has been talk of a dream ticket featuring the popular backbencher and David Miliband. After last week, the Foreign Secretary needs his support more than ever. As an outsider he is untainted by cabinet rows

Jack Straw

Cabinet veteran was beginning to be left out of election strategy; got agreement from the Prime Minister to be more collegiate. Denied claims he was one of six ministers ready to quit, but it did not harm negotiating position

Harriet Harman

As with Mr Straw, secured concessions from the Prime Minister. Already attends daily election meetings, but will see profile boosted. A possible candidate in a future leadership contest, has not suffered a backlash from rebellious MPs

The losers...

Gordon Brown

Has been weakened by conceding to cabinet ministers, including that he rein in his closest ally, Ed Balls. Support from top ministers was ambiguous. Survived a third coup attempt, but everyone knows the extent of unhappiness in his Cabinet

David Miliband

Accused of treachery by Mr Brown's supporters for taking nearly seven hours to issue lukewarm support for the PM. Accused by rebels of failing again to challenge Mr Brown. Chances of becoming future leader are damaged

Ed Balls

The target of ministers' complaints that he is empire building and forced to defend his position against charges he is pursuing a controversial "class war" and carry on with a spending strategy against the Tories. Retains strong support of Mr Brown

Charles Clarke

Blamed for stoking the coup. There are claims he over-interpreted the grumbling of ministers as willingness to jump ship. Has led countless attacks against Mr Brown – making them virtually meaningless

Geoff Hoon

Blairite turned Brownite turned rebel, his credibility is all but gone after attempted coup. Already damaged by association with Iraq war, is now cast as bitter for missing out on EU foreign affairs job, and is expected to quit as an MP at the election

Patricia Hewitt

Mr Hoon's partner in the coup has inflamed anger as she is standing down as an MP. Already making money through company directorships, she was always going to be an unconvincing figure in trying to have a say in the future of the party

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