Alan Watkins: Mr Brown survives the snowflakes

The conspirators' plot to topple the Prime Minister melted away even before there was a nickname for it
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The Independent Online

There have already been several attempts to christen the revolution that never happened with a catchy name. The most popular seems to be the Winter Coup. Happily – or perhaps unfortunately – it did not happen either. We are stuck with the Snowflake Revolution, so there might have been a contender with Miliband's Folly.

In fact – by which I mean, as people usually do mean, in my opinion – Mr Miliband is being treated rather unfairly. I have never been the greatest personal enthusiast for the Foreign Secretary, but all the poor chap did was to announce that he had to get on with his job. What could be more reasonable than that? It is not as if he had been tempted to wave a banana at the television cameras during a party conference, as happened a couple of years ago.

In any case, what sort of signal (a word that has insinuated itself into politics over the past couple of decades) would have had any meaning? As a matter of interest, the signals employed by the Royal Navy before and during the First World War were of such elaboration that the officers concerned got them the wrong way round, with fatal consequences. They may, indeed, have been responsible for the death of my Uncle Dan in the Battle of Jutland. But this is by the way.

Mr Miliband did not send out any signals of any kind. That, so some of my colleagues say, was precisely the trouble. He was the last in the queue. He was fumbling with his change, unsure of whether to produce his loyalty card or whether he had left it unaccountably at home.

The other customers, in the course of that Wednesday afternoon, attempted to combine prudence with zeal, in varying degrees. Mr Shaun Woodward can be guaranteed to produce loyalty to the powers-that-be, in this case Mr Gordon Brown. Mr Ed Balls is virtually Mr Brown's personal creation. He has the support of his stalwart wife, Ms Yvette Cooper, who is put up by the Government to defend the indefensible on Newsnight and other programmes, and once wrote leading articles for the progressive press.

Apart from these, the support rather falls away. We are told that Mr Alistair Darling took the opportunity to speak some home truths to the Prime Minister. According to the reports, he told Mr Brown he was a bit of a bully, and did not always speak the exact truth. That was not precisely new information, but it was interesting to have it confirmed once again. Mr Darling, it appears, asked for better behaviour all round on the part of Mr Brown, with consequences that remain to be seen.

As usual, the most interesting figure remains that of Lord Mandelson. He judged his various performances on the Wednesday to a nicety. The favourite metaphor employed by him and by others was of a storm in a teacup, though those of greater fancy could try their hand with snowflakes. Lord Mandelson echoed Corporal Jones in Dad's Army: "Don't panic!" He, and, of course, Mr Brown, would carry on governing. That was Lord Mandelson's message.

The other interesting character was Ms Harriet Harman. The indications are that while Lord Mandelson is a sturdy prop whose support can at any moment be withdrawn, Ms Harman is not altogether steady in the front row. She is at one with him in her pursuance of the class war (I am using political shorthand here).

She differs from him over bankers, the City, equality, positive discrimination in favour of women and other cognate subjects.

For some months now, years even, I have been conducting a temperate campaign on behalf of Ms Harman. It is not that I approve of her views, especially. It is merely that she deserves to be taken seriously as a Labour politician. But my colleagues, or most of them, persist in treating her either as a menace, which she may well be, or as a joke, which she is not.

Ms Harman made her name in the late 1970s, when she was an official of the National Council for Civil Liberties, later renamed Liberty. Her fellow official was Ms Patricia Hewitt. Both of them succeeded in reporting me to the Press Council. The dispute was of no significance. It was quickly forgotten, even at the time. But I bear no ill will towards either.

What I remember more clearly is their performance at the Labour conference of 1979. It was held in Brighton, when the newly defeated MPs who had been in government were corralled in the hall like the defendants at a Soviet trial of the 1930s. "Comrades," the ladies yelled – or at least one of them did – "give us socialism. Give us socialism now." Poor old Jim Callaghan did not have any intention of doing anything of the kind. As Ms Hewitt and Ms Harman well knew.

Ms Harman persisted with her views for long afterwards. Indeed, she still retains some of them. Ms Hewitt took a different route. She is best known, I suppose, as a somewhat bossy minister of health, though successive ministers of health in Labour governments since 1997 have had bossiness written into their specifications for the job.

And before that she was press adviser to Neil Kinnock when he was leader of the Labour Party. I tended to give a wide berth to Ms Hewitt, preferring to deal directly either with Mr Kinnock, as he was in those days, or, more usually, with Roy Hattersley, who has also gone to the House of Lords, which he says he does not like very much. Lord Hattersley, then deputy leader, was rebuked by Ms Hewitt for using the word "equality". The preferred word, she ruled, was fairness.

Her colleague was Mr Charles Clarke. He was in charge of the leader's office. He once attacked me for opposing the nationalisation of water supplies. Efforts were then being strenuously made to "modernise" the party in accordance with the later precepts of Mr Tony Blair.

Mr Clarke became an MP in 1997. Absurdly, he was made "chairman of the party" by Mr Blair after the general election of 2001, when the party had a perfectly good chairman of its own already, appointed on an annual basis from the National Executive Committee.

In his party leaders, Mr Clarke has not been altogether fortunate. He was once a not bad home secretary, under Mr Blair, but he cannot abide Mr Brown. Not for the first time Mr Clarke has urged the collection of signatures among the MPs. This has never possessed any significance in terms of the Labour constitution – except to the extent that nomination is necessary. The electoral college is a quite different matter.

The last conspirator was Mr Geoff Hoon. I have always possessed a soft spot for Mr Hoon. He was, with John Smith and George Robertson, one of the Labour members who seriously embarrassed John Major and his government and indirectly brought about the Labour victory of 1997.

Like the snowflakes, they are all gone. Mr Brown is still there. There is, however, no sign of triumphalism – of what the late William Whitelaw, in another connection, once called "gloating". Quite the reverse. It is not that Mr Brown has had a lucky escape, rather that the game was not worth playing in the first place.

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