Alan Watkins: Mr Brown will cling on till the bitter end

Voters on the left are looking to the Liberal Democrats as their faith in the Prime Minister drains away
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The Independent Online

A week’s holiday in the middle of February is something to which I have yet to become accustomed, when we are only just recovering from Christmas and New Year. But so it was last week, when the schools had broken up and the House o f Commons was not sitting. In these circumstances, our MPs become more feverish rather than less. Something of the sort occurred in September 2006, when the successful peasants’ revolt against Mr Tony Blair was organised by means of email and teletext.

Last summer’s revolt against Mr Gordon Brown, before he emerged in front of our wondering eyes as the saviour of civilisation, has been resumed with added force. There are, however, differences. In the first “Brown is useless” period, the commentating classes had fixed on the banana-wielding Mr David Miliband as the possible salvation of the Labour Government.

Alas, Mr Miliband promptly dropped the baton, or rather, the banana. Mr Brown had been preparing himself for this moment of crisis throughout his life, much as Winston Churchill had in 1940. And, for a time, people believed Mr Brown.

No longer. There is a whole raft of survivors or, if you prefer it, of successors afloat on an unfriendly sea, while Mr Miliband has fallen quite out of fashion, much as Mr Michael Portillo did in another party in another period.

The candidate of the wise old heads, in the party and the papers alike, is Mr Alan Johnson. He lived in a council house, was brought up by his sister, worked as a postman and is highly popular. He knows real life – unlike those toffs at the top of the Tory party. The theory of contrasts is much regarded in contests for party leaders. Who can tell whether it is correct?

When Mr John Prescott ceased to be deputy leader and deputy prime minister (and Mr Brown has not appointed a deputy PM), the weight of money in the election to succeed him favoured Mr Johnson. I backed Ms Harriet Harman, because I thought the constituency section in Labour’s selection system would just tip the balance in Ms Harman’s favour; and so it turned out.

This, I promise you, is the only detailed reference I shall make to that system in this column or, for that matter, to the even more involved one which exists in the Conservative Party.

The wise old heads did not expect Ms Harman to win the deputy leadership in succession to Mr Prescott. They do not expect her to succeed Mr Brown today. But she had the better of Mr William Hague at least twice at Prime Minister’s Questions.

My own view is that Mr David Cameron should still take PMQs if Mr Brown is out of the country or is otherwise engaged, without having to put up Mr Hague in his place. Mr Hague seems to be both deputy leader and not to be Mr Cameron’s deputy; whereas Ms Harman is deputy leader but fills in for Mr Brown as Leader of the House.

Meanwhile, Ms Theresa May, the shadow Leader of the House, is left out in the cold. I hope this clears the matter up.

Not only is there a new candidate in the form of Ms Harman, but possibly others as well. The timescale has shifted. The reality is that there cannot be a change of prime minister before the next general election.

As we know, Anthony Eden

succeeded Churchill in 1955 and held an election weeks afterwards; Alec Douglas-Home succeeded Harold Macmillan in 1963 and held an election after 11 months.

Times have changed. The political system could not take the strain of having another Labour prime minister imposed on the electorate without an appeal to the people.

After all, it was what happened in 2007: a change of prime minister without the intervention of either a general election or even of a party contest. Mr Brown entered No 10 even more painlessly than Eden, Macmillan, Home and John Major, who did at least take the preliminary precaution of being elected by his own party.

And yet, two extraordinary notions are being talked about. One is that in late spring or early summer Mr Brown should take his leave to assume control of some international financial organisation. The only apt comment would be: “Physician, heal thyself.” The setting up of Labour’s complicated machinery or the simpler device of a Cabinet coup would be equally objectionable to the voters.

The other notion is that Mr Brown would just call an election on his own initiative. He would have done all he could; it did not work; let someone else have a go. In any case, four years, as it would be at the middle of this year, was the normal, the natural timespan for any government.

Prime ministers do sometimes give up, as C R Attlee did in 1951, Macmillan in 1963, and Edward Heath, for different reasons, in February 1974. Mr Brown does not strike me as the kind of prime minister to surrender. He will think of the party. His is not old, traditional or regular Labour: that has been a persistent misjudgement on the part of numerous observers. Mr Brown created New Labour along with Mr Blair. The system they created has now turned on Mr Brown.

There has been a more recent change in the weather. The Liberal Democrats are being taken seriously once again.

This was one of the puzzling features of past months. Dr Vince Cable, the party’s spokesman on financial and economic matters, got most things right. Or – so as not to quibble – he got everything right. It can be only a matter of time before one or more of the principal banks are taken into full public ownership.

For months and months now, ever since the troubles of Northern Rock first emerged, Dr Cable has spotted symptoms, made diagnoses and suggested remedies. Mr Brown has accepted Dr Cable’s findings grudgingly or not at all. Until quite recently, the Liberal Democrats seemed to be making little impact on the opinion polls.

The first phase of the crisis, with Mr Brown as the saviour of civilisation, saw Labour making a recovery. I did not believe it then, and nobody believes it now. Even so, there were many complaints that Mr Cameron was failing to make a coherent impression, or , indeed, an impression of any kind.

Since then, the faith that people had reposed in Mr Brown has soaked into the carpet. They have not transferred any belief to Mr Cameron’s saleroom: they have to go somewhere, that is all. But suddenly, it seems, the voters have decided that there may be something to be said for the Liberal Democrats after all.

The wisdom of the wise used to be that memories of the Iraq War would fade. I did not believe it at the time, and to a certain extent my belief was vindicated, in that in the 2005 election, Liberal Democrat representation was increased from 54 to 62, now 63.

I do not believe that Labour’s shame has been forgotten, or that Mr Brown will be forgiven for the economy which he created over a whole decade and more.

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