Sunday 6 July 2008
Alan Watkins: For Labour MPs, tomorrow never comes
Even if the Government fails to hold the safe seat of Glasgow East, it's hard to see the Prime Minister paying the price of defeat
When I was growing up, in what was then the coal-mining part of Carmarthenshire, there was a favoured promise: I'll do it tomorrow. What he (for the speaker was usually a man, not a woman) meant was: I'll do it when I feel like it, or next week, or, perhaps, never. Meanwhile, the shed remains unpainted and the shelf is not put up.
It is rather the same with the Labour Party and Mr Gordon Brown. His colleagues, if they do it at all – if they get rid of the Prime Minister – will do it tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes. A hurdle is erected for Mr Brown to jump, or, at least, to scramble over somehow. He either falls down or, more ingeniously, manages to avoid the obstacle, as he has tried to do with various fiscal measures introduced by Mr Alistair Darling or by himself. Mr Brown is still in his place.
It is the same with various set encounters. There were the local elections, where, admittedly, Labour was not expected to do well. But the party performed even more disastrously than anyone had expected.
Then there was the contest for London mayor. Even a few months before that election (it is now forgotten), people in and around the Government regarded it as a "banker", as they used to say when they did the football pools. As Mr Boris Johnson advanced, Mr Brown, we were told, could not survive another humiliation. He was duly humbled (for "humiliation" is much too strong a word), but Mr Brown is still there.
There was the even more humbling result in Crewe and Nantwich. By this stage, Labour should have learned its lesson about supposedly "toff" candidates, when Ms Harriet Harman is the niece of a countess. We can leave aside the result in Henley. Coming fifth at a by-election behind the British National Party and losing a deposit is hardly a glowing advertisement for Labour. But then, the party chose to treat the contest with what the late George Brown once chose to call a "complete ignoral".
Who, by the way, now remembers George Brown? He was once foreign secretary, kept resigning, was often drunk and once asked for the pleasure of the next dance with a gorgeously attired figure who turned out to be the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima in Peru. But I digress.
An event which the Government will not be able to treat with insouciance is the forthcoming Glasgow East by-election, where the member, Mr David Marshall, is retiring on account of ill health. The Labour majority is 13,507, with Labour taking 61 per cent of the vote at the last election. The SNP was second. It is the home of Celtic Football Club. It is the latest hurdle to be set up for Mr Brown to negotiate.
It is presumably the intention of the party managers to hold the by-election just after the recess begins. Government whips traditionally repose a touching faith in the therapeutic value of the parliamentary recess. Sultry weather tends to descend on London in July. So far, it has not happened this year.
It may be also that, owing to various changes introduced by the late Robin Cook and others, our legislators are less cooped up than they used to be. They do not irritate one another as they did in former times. That is the theory, at any rate. So, the backbenchers are less troublesome than they used to be.
In 2006, the movement against Mr Tony Blair reached its peak in September, during the recess, not long before the party conference met. The malcontents communicated chiefly by email. The principal cause of the revolt was Mr Blair's support for the war in Lebanon. By the time of that year's conference, Mr Blair had promised to go away.
How much Mr Brown himself had to do with these stirring scenes remains mysterious. When the great event finally occurred, just over a year ago, the supporters of Mr Blair in the newspapers, particularly those owned by Mr Rupert Murdoch, made a point of emphasising that the then prime minister was leaving at a "moment of his own choosing". Well, yes and no.
Winston Churchill was forced out of office in 1955 after his Cabinet colleagues had devoted several years to the task. In 1957, the same thing happened to Anthony Eden, over months rather than years. In 1963, Harold Macmillan went voluntarily, having used his medical condition as a reason – or an excuse – for making his departure. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher went in the bloodiest act of political assassination of modern times.
In 1995, John Major submitted himself to re-election by his own party, said "back me or sack me" and was duly backed, though only up to a point. The Prime Minister's placemen mounted a rescue operation, saying that he had won a famous victory where it had not been anything of the kind. His party's heart was not in it, but he continued in office and he was defeated overwhelmingly by Mr Blair.
Whether Mr Blair was pushed, shoved or went of his own accord – and in what proportions – Harold Wilson departed voluntarily in 1976. There is a wealth of evidence that he had plotted this course over several years, while delays had occurred, or obstacles had been placed in his path, by several accidents along the way. The great mystery of Wilson's resignation is why it was ever considered mysterious at all.
The nearest comparison is with John Major in 1995. It is not, I grant you, a specially original analogy, but there it is. My guess is not that Mr Brown will say "back me or sack me", or not in such clear terms. People might take him at his word. In any case, there is no plausible mechanism in place to dislodge the Prime Minister.
In Sir John's time, the election of party leader and hence of Prime Minister was in the hands of Conservative MPs. So it was in 1990, when Mrs Thatcher was succeeded by Sir John, who went on to win a general election, as Mr Brown does not look like doing in comparable circumstances.
In 1976, likewise, James Callaghan succeeded Wilson without fuss. The electorate was composed solely of Labour MPs. The contest was over in weeks. Today, there would be a longer contest, but both a shorter and a less glittering array of candidates. And the competition would last for months, as the election for deputy leader did last year.
In 1983, there was a proposal for a new leader. Mr Michael Foot was trying to do his best. But his MPs, or a good number of them, were discontented, Mrs Thatcher was menacing and Labour might well lose the forthcoming Darlington by-election. The plot was that Mr Foot would produce a "doctor's letter" – an old Labour phrase redolent of industrial lead-swinging – relieving him of his existing duties and handing them over to his deputy, Denis Healey, as was provided for in the party constitution. But Labour won Darlington and Mr Foot lived on.
Something tells me that Ms Harman, as deputy leader, would not become leader, still less Prime Minister (for Mr Brown has not appointed a deputy prime minister) if Labour lost Glasgow East. Labour is still, I fear, stuck with Mr Brown.
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