In the days of old Fleet Street, there used to be someone who bore the unofficial title of the Editor's Friend. The friend's duties included those of warning the editor against any threats to his authority, accompanying him to the pub towards the end of the morning, and trying to cheer him up generally. For these reasons, he would not be a journalist of any great distinction himself, and, above all, would not present any danger to the editor's own position.
Prime ministers too have their best friends. Mr Gordon Brown's latest best friend is Mr Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland secretary. I feel it necessary to append a short description because not many people know who he is. He decamped from the Conservative benches to New Labour where he was munificently rewarded. He (or his wife) was also rich enough to employ a butler, long before the eruption of the expenses scandal.
At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Mr Woodward was seated next to Mr Brown, presumably breathing words of encouragement. On Newsnight, Mr Woodward was leading the "Keep Calm" party. Ms Harriet Harman was trying to exert a calming influence herself, though more as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party than as Mr Brown's best friend. Indeed, for the last couple of weeks, Ms Harman has been trying to build up a position of Madam Integrity, the soul of the party, with what degree of success (for I am sceptical about the true motives of politicians) who is to tell?
What is already clear is that no government since 1945 has collapsed in quite the way the present Cabinet has done. The nearest parallel is that of the Attlee administration in 1951, when death, illness, resignation and exhaustion brought about an unnecessary election, and 13 years of the Conservatives. Even so, it would be ludicrous to place Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin and Stafford Cripps in the same category as James Purnell, Hazel Blears and Jacqui Smith, to say nothing of Caroline Flint (a person of the utmost insignificance), Geoff Hoon and John Hutton.
I think it was slightly unfair, by the way, for television and the press to put Ms Patricia Hewitt alongside the other defectors. Though I have never been among Ms Hewitt's unqualified admirers, she used to be a fairly competent, even if irritating minister, retired to the back benches and is now returning to the bosom of her family. There is nothing remotely surprising or odd about that.
On the same subject, I should like to say something of the deposed Labour MP for Norwich North, Dr Ian Gibson. I have never met Dr Gibson, but always heard him with interest and amusement in the House. Now it turns out he benefited his daughter over some property transaction. But it seems the majority of MPs benefited their families in some way or other. It appears to me that Dr Gibson is being singled out.
I have heard it suggested that Dr Gibson has been disobliging about Mr Brown. In that case, there would be hardly anyone left to contest any seats at all. Perhaps it will come to that in the end.
My instinct is still that Mr Brown will hang on. But if enough ministers refuse to serve under him, Mr Brown will have to go. He will have no choice in the matter. The consensus among the politicians and the press alike is that, in those circumstances, Mr Alan Johnson would take over. But yet another imposed candidate, such as Mr Brown was in 2007, could produce
conditions favourable to a revolution. James Callaghan in 1976 and John Major in 1990 did, after all, take the preliminary precaution of being elected by their parties first.
Nor is the vote of confidence, as suggested by Mr Barry Sheerman, completely convincing. It was Sir John Major who tried this in 1995 by means of a party election. His friends appeared on our screens to announce that he had won a clear victory, when he had won nothing of the kind.
Under the rules of the Labour Party, the electorate would have to be wider: not only MPs, but representatives of the unions and the constituencies. The old system, which lasted until 1981, was preferable. But we are stuck with something else.
The rules say that, if Mr Brown was dislodged, the Cabinet and the National Executive Committee would agree on a new prime minister before an election could take place. All the commentary I have read is that Mr Johnson would assume command and await the formality of a party election. But that does not seem to me what ought to happen.
In 1994 John Smith died, and the successful candidate to replace him was Mr Tony Blair. The deputy leader was Mrs Margaret Beckett. She became leader of the party – not, be it noted, acting leader – for the duration of the contest. In the same way, Ms Harman should surely become prime minister until the party election could be completed. Ms Harman, and no doubt Mr Johnson, and others also, could all be candidates. It would be simpler all round for Mr Brown to stay where he was – or to trot round to the palace to ask for a dissolution.
The psychologists tell us that the remedy for unhappiness is hard work. I have never been wholly convinced of this myself, but still I offer it as a thought to Mr Brown. He has always made a big production out of working hard, or appearing to do so. But the last Queen's Speech was a complete disgrace. The hours of the House are taken up with the problems of coathangers, deckchairs and paperclips.
The rest of this Parliament, whether under Mr Brown or somebody else, could be devoted to electoral reform. The headline on this column last week slightly misleadingly said that Mr Brown should embrace PR. I have never supported proportional representation any more than Mr Brown has: not because it leads to "weak" government – for an absence of strong government is usually a good thing – but because the system of party lists leads to increased domination by central committees.
Roy Jenkins, in his jettisoned report of 1998, adopted the alternative vote in single-member constituencies. A candidate had to obtain 50 per cent of the vote or more, after the ballot-paper had been marked 1, 2, 3 .... Jenkins's topping up by means of the party list, to retain a greater degree of proportionality, is completely unnecessary, and, indeed, harmful to the simpler system.
Political parties rarely act from disinterested motives. The principal reason for Labour to do anything is that the party may save itself from an even worse defeat if Mr Brown does nothing. The only idea seems to be that Labour should call for a referendum in the election manifesto.
But Labour is certainly going to lose the election under the present system. It may make the defeat easier to bear under the alternative vote. The objections are standard. We must first have a referendum. We need committees or a speaker's conference when we do not even have a Speaker. Above all (we are told) we do not have time.
Under Mr Brown or somebody else, the party has a whole parliamentary year. The Liberal Democrats would presumably support the Government, at any rate on this question, though one cannot be entirely sure about that. But the fight has completely gone out of the Labour Party.