Only political columnists of a certain age any longer quote nursery rhymes. So this week I will cite no fewer than two of them. Not exactly to extract any sympathy for Mr Gordon Brown, but simply to illustrate the difficulties in which he now finds himself – largely, it must be said, through his own fault.
The first rhyme is, of course, about the grand old Duke of York, who had a majority of 63. In two encounters over a couple of parliamentary days, he lost one engagement and withdrew from the other one. In the latter battle (to do with MPs' expenses), it was not entirely clear whether he was withdrawing or not.
The second rhyme is perhaps quoted less in political discourse. It concerns the two little dicky birds sitting on the wall:
Fly away Peter, fly away Paul.
Come back Peter, come back Paul.
Peter, in the form of the newly ennobled Lord Mandelson, was to rejoin the Government and to become a member of Mr Brown's Cabinet last summer. Assorted Pauls, on the backbenches and elsewhere, reconciled themselves to life under Mr Brown until he chose to call an election which looked more and more likely to be in May or even June 2010.
Now it is back to the bad old times for Mr Brown. Several colleagues in the commentating trade have consulted their computers or, in my case, dusted down their cardboard files, and looked up the rules for changing a Labour prime minister.
As a matter of fact, these rules are quite difficult to track down. The party tries to keep as quiet about them as it decently can. I know about them, and can quote them. If necessary, at length. I desist, because the appetite of my readers for this sort of thing is limited.
So is that of the Labour Party at this stage of the electoral cycle. A general election is that much nearer than it was when Mr David Miliband was being touted as the somewhat implausible candidate to take on, or, rather, to replace Mr Brown.
The paradox, if it is a paradox, is that there is a more sympathetic candidate in Mr Alan Johnson. His deficiencies are that the party does not want a contest, time is too short, and, by most accounts, Mr Johnson does not want the job. Moreover, we may be coming to an end of a period in constitutional history when prime ministers are often chosen by party election or by intrigue. In future they may have to be chosen solely as the result of a general election.
James Callaghan was appointed as the result of the result of a straight party vote (of MPs only) in 1976. The other prime minister who was so chosen, as the result of a more complicated system of internal voting, was John Major in 1990. At the time, one of the unsuccessful candidates, Douglas Hird, objected to the jettisoning of Margaret Thatcher as "undemocratic".
Many other recent prime ministers have come up as the result of thoroughly undemocratic processes: Winston Churchill in 1940, Anthony Eden in 1955, Harold Macmillan in 1957, Alec Douglas-Home in 1963, Gordon Brown in 2007. True, lip service was paid to the old Labour principle of internal party elections. But it was conveniently announced that, as in the old Soviet Union elections, or with the boards of public companies, the candidate was elected unopposed.
Having had one prime minister just imposed on them, the long-suffering
voters would not be prepared to accept somebody else, whether by means of an internal party election or in a Cabinet coup. A compromise between these two admittedly unsatisfactory methods is now being talked about.
In much the same way did Ms Harriet Harman, the Leader of the House, try to accept Mr Brown's less obviously silly proposals on MPs' expenses and at the same time to refer them to another outside authority. Similarly, there is a proposal (not, I hasten to make clear, Ms Harman's) to persuade Mr Brown to stand down for ... for whom precisely, or even vaguely? The details can be completed later.
The favourite to fill the role as wise old head of the People's Party is Mr Jack Straw, possibly supported by Mr Alistair Darling and Mrs Margaret Beckett, who were all three on that long march through the institutions in Mr Tony Blair's first Cabinet. The script would require Mr Straw to head the delegation of workers, peasants and intellectuals. This would be more or less a return to the script first tried out in summer 2008, with the difference that the election for party leader (who might, or might not, be prime minister) would take place after the general election.
In the meantime, Mr Straw would take over as prime minister, by agreement, as provided for by the rules, between the cabinet and the National Executive Committee of the party. And if those two mighty bodies could not agree, what then? What indeed!
In those circumstances, Mr Brown himself would presumably have something to say about it. The Prime Minster retains the power to advise Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament. In Victorian times, I know, it was the Cabinet who advised the Queen. But gradually the function was monopolised by the prime minister.
I do not think it is part of Mr Brown's character to want to bring down the temple to spite his enemies in his own party. In any case, it is by now a pretty ramshackle construction. But Mr Brown still thinks he has work to do.
Macmillan convinced himself that his health would give way, even though his doctors had assured him that he could carry on if he wanted to, as he indeed did out of office to the age of 92. Harold Wilson knew his powers were failing and resigned later than he would have wished. With Callaghan, there is conflict of evidence. One view is that he had had enough: but his effective deputy, Michael Foot, said only a few weeks ago that the Labour government could have kept itself occupied happily for several more months.
Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street in tears and her party equally unhappy for 15 more years. John Major stayed as long as he could, but did not gain by the experience. Douglas-Home hung on as long as he was able to in 1964 but, to most people's surprise, came to within a few seats of beating Wilson in an election that Labour seemed sure to win.
Six months before that election, the Conservative government came out with a statement that there would be no election till the autumn. It calmed everyone's nerves, at any rate in the government. I would advise Mr Brown to do the same, if Mr Brown were not in the habit of seeming to seek political advantage with whatever it is he does.
When he visited the troops in Iraq in autumn 2007 he was accused of trying to ruin a Conservative conference, which in practice turned out to be a great success. When he tried to intervene over MPs' expenses, he attempted to defeat himself single-handed, and almost succeeded. So one could go on and on.
The result is that Peter and Paul are flitting about once again, most of them aimlessly and some of them angrily. Perhaps Mr Brown would be better advised after all to hold an election and put them all out of their misery, himself included.