Alan Watkins: A new Labour PM is sure to be a loser

Were Gordon Brown to be removed and replaced, the election following a dissolution would ensure the party's annihilation
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An editor I once worked for advised – no, instructed – me never to include figures in the first paragraph of my column. I have obeyed this injunction ever since. Indeed, he preferred to eliminate figures altogether, if that could be arranged. They tended to put the reader off, he would explain sapiently.

From my own observation, the statement of rules puts the reader off even more comprehensively. For the schools of journalism instruct their pupils to tell the story through the people who are involved. So we bring on a whole cast of characters – Mr Gordon Brown, Mr David Miliband, others of varying degrees of plausibility – to become leader of the Labour Party and hence prime minister.

Of course, the people matter. But the rules of the contest matter too. After all, it was the failure of the Conservative MPs to add up properly that was the primary cause of the removal of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. And it was that indispensable journalist Mr Michael Crick who admitted recently on Newsnight that he had re-read the rules for choosing a new leader and that there was still some ambiguity.

If so industrious a reporter and so assiduous a researcher as Mr Crick is unsure, what hope can there be for the rest of us? I can only try my best to clear up the difficulty.

The fallacy is that Labour MPs are supposed to be able to requisition an election off their own bat. They cannot do anything of the kind. The error arises from the language used by numerous members of the parliamentary lobby, to the effect that a certain number of MPs are required to "trigger" an election.

With a membership of 350, the numbers required are 70, or 20 per cent, for a contested election, which Mr Brown would contest, and 44, or 12.5 per cent for a new contest, where Mr Brown would have retired from the competition. The rules seem clear enough to me: "In the case of a vacancy for leader... each nomination must be supported by 12.5 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP." And: "Where there is no vacancy... any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the [same body]."

But these members do not make up the initiating body. Sadly, in my opinion, both the initiatory and the elective functions of the parliamentary party were ended in 1981. The last Labour leader elected solely by Labour MPs was Mr Michael Foot in 1980. It is a common mistake to think that it was Mr Foot who was first elected under the new rules.

In 1993, the rules were changed again. They provided for a new carve-up for the electoral college and also for "one member, one vote", which was a bit on the theoretical side in some trade unions. But the function of choosing a leader has not been transferred back to the parliamentary party. Its functions are restricted to nomination – a different matter – depending on whether there is a vacancy, as there would be if Mr Brown left office, or no vacancy if Mr Brown insisted on staying.

The rules say: "When the PLP is in government and the leader [is] prime minister, an election shall proceed only if requested by a majority of party conference on a card vote." There is no requirement for a fancy majority: only a card vote.

The trade unions, however, can still control the conference, even though their voting power has been diminished over recent years. Three determined leaders of large unions would be enough to call for a party election. The Labour MPs could then sit on their hands. They could refuse to be pushed around by assorted Bills and Berts, Dereks and Kevins.

James Callaghan and Michael Foot caved in ignominiously to Tony Benn when they surrendered the sovereignty of the parliamentary party in 1979-81. We might see a revival of the powers of Labour MPs on the principle of "he may be a bastard but he's our bastard".

Somehow, I cannot see this happening: I mean, that MPs should turn round and defend the office of prime minister against extra-parliamentary forces. It is still more likely that his old friends in the unions will once more be prepared to mount a rescue operation. But I would not bank on it.

Mr Miliband has brought about an extraordinary state of affairs. The only recent comparison that comes to mind is of Callaghan who, as Home Secretary, spoke against Harold Wilson's then trade union policy on the Labour national executive. Jim retained his seat in the Cabinet but was punished by being thrown out of the so-called parliamentary committee, or inner cabinet. He later returned without a stain on his reputation and went on to become Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister.

The present Foreign Secretary has not attacked Mr Brown or his policies, such as they are. All he has done is to write an article in The Guardian of a fairly anodyne nature. His omission was the failure to express any opinion about the irreplaceable nature of Mr Brown. He might just as well have been wearing a funny hat saying: "Kiss Me Quick" or a T-shirt announcing: "I'm Free" or some even more enticing message, designed for our frankly speaking times. What is clear is that Mr Miliband cannot succeed painlessly, as Mr Brown was allowed to do last year.

Here we must try to be fair to Mr Brown. Mr John McDonnell, the admirable member for Hayes, was ready and willing to contest the election. As there was a vacancy, Mr Tony Blair having retired in office, Mr McDonnell needed to receive 44 nominations. These he failed to obtain. Instead, in a fit of sycophancy unparalleled even in the parliamentary party, more than 300 members signed Mr Brown's nomination papers. As Sir Robert Walpole almost said, they were ringing their bells then, but they are wringing their hands now.

There is a tendency in these confused periods to chuck everything into the indictment. Thus Mr Brown is accused of "snubbing" Ms Harriet Harman by not making her deputy prime minister. But the only deputy PMs in Labour history have been Herbert Morrison and John Prescott. George Brown, Edward Short and Michael Foot all served in Labour governments as deputy leader without becoming deputy prime minister.

My guess is, however, that if there were a contest, Ms Harman would be, as people say these days, up for it. So would Mr Jack Straw. A party election of some kind there would have to be. So much is common ground.

Several observers have gone on to assert that there would then have to be a general election. Perhaps the ground is not so common after all. Accordingly, the theory goes, the Cabinet and the national executive would appoint an acting prime minister, as the rules provide. He or she would trot off to the Palace and request a dissolution of Parliament. No prime minister has been refused a dissolution since the great Reform Bill of 1832, though there have been alarms along the way.

The party would be annihilated. That there could be a general election following the removal of Mr Brown demonstrates the fevered state of Labour.

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