Alan Watkins: There is a mayfly in the ointment for the Brown coronation. Let's call it Mrs Beckett

Kissing hands with the Queen does not seem necessary
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The Independent Online

The principal topic of political conversation is the succession to Mr Tony Blair. This is natural enough. From time to time an effort is made to change the subject. For the last couple of weeks, for instance, an attempt has been made to interest us in the reform of the House of Lords. Mr Jack Straw has been specially engaged in these matters.

Quite why this particular topic should have arisen at this particular time remains mysterious, to me at any rate. Occasionally the unworthy thought crosses my mind that this may be a diversion, or an attempted diversion, from the cash-for-peerages affair, with New Labour holding out the often-repeated promise to create an entirely new second chamber.

Alas, it will not do. Some bright spark or, more likely, a committee of not-such-bright-sparks will come up with an elaborate set of proposals. They will then be comprehensively rejected for one reason or another, usually for contradictory reasons. Some of us have been around this course so many times that we have retired by the side of the track, exhausted.

Besides, the practical persons of politics add, Gordon will have no time. Mr Brown is not greatly interested in these matters. He will have much else with which to occupy himself. There would be interminable debates, endless votes - even if those reforms, if they turned out to be reforms, managed to reach that stage of the proceedings. It is much better for practical politicians to stay with Mr Brown, for the time being.

Already a rough-and-ready consensus has emerged. Mr Blair will take his leave in May or shortly afterwards, after putting in 10 years at No 10; for though he has already beaten H H Asquith's spell, and will now never catch up with Margaret Thatcher's, Mr Blair's decade provides a nice, round figure.

Other aspects are more subject to dispute. Should Mr Brown be challenged? Or should he not? Mr Blair has told us in his interview with Mr John Humphrys nine days ago that Mr Brown should not succeed him automatically. Oddly enough, the commentators did not pay much attention to this feature of the interview. But if the admirable Mr John McDonnell does decide to challenge Mr Brown, he may find he does not have enough signatures to support him.

Other features of Mr Blair's departure are more mysterious. To begin with: does Mr Blair resign as Prime Minister before his successor is chosen? Or does he remain in office until his successor is all dressed up ready to go to the palace?

The ceremony of kissing hands with the Queen does not, by the way, seem to be necessary. From my small investigations, it seems that sometimes this happens, sometimes not. It may be that the ceremony is gone through on only the first occasion when the politician in question formally becomes Prime Minister. What is more important is whether Mr Blair goes at once or carries on until the party election or other formalities are completed.

If Mr Blair carries on, no problem is created. From 25 March 1976 to 5 April, James Callaghan was in process of becoming leader of the Labour Party and took office as Prime Minister on the same day. Throughout this period, Harold Wilson remained in office without the slightest fuss on anyone's part.

On the other occasion when a Prime Minister was elected by his party and imposed on a grateful Sovereign, as John Major was, Mrs Thatcher stayed on to the end - even though the circumstances of her tearful departure were not especially happy for her or for a large section of her party. Wilson's exit was happier, though many foolishly maintained that it was "mysterious". We shall have to see what the mood surrounding Mr Blair's departure will turn out to be.

Whatever it is, there is no sensible reason why Mr Blair should not hang on to the end and hand over decorously to Mr Brown. But, as far as I can see, this is what the party rules prevent Mr Blair from doing. These rules date from 1993 and my copy is marked January 2002.

They lay down that: "When the party is in government and the party leader is Prime Minister and the party leader, for whatever reason (italics mine), becomes permanently unavailable, the cabinet shall, in consultation with the NEC, appoint one of its members to serve as party leader until a ballot under these rules can be carried out."

There is a further difficulty - or perhaps it is more a blessing in disguise. The cabinet and the National Executive Committee are not allowed to appoint Mr Prescott as party leader and, presumably, as Prime Minister as well. The reason for this is that, by all accounts, Mr Prescott will be retiring at the same time, both as deputy leader and as Deputy Prime Minister, though there is no constitutional or any other reason, apart from political patronage, to have a deputy Prime Minister at all.

The rules for the party in opposition closely follow those for the party in government, except naturally there are no provisions about the Prime Minister or the cabinet. But there is a persuasive precedent nonetheless. In 1992-94, John Smith was leader and Mrs Margaret Beckett deputy leader. In 1994 Mr Prescott was elected deputy leader, defeating Mrs Beckett. In the weeks between Smith's death and Blair's election as leader, Mrs Beckett was chosen to be leader for the duration of the contest - not, be it noted, as acting leader, as temporary leader or as fly-by-night leader. Mrs Beckett makes a great point of this, drawing the common even if understandable error to the notice of negligent broadcasters and idle journalists.

It may be someone else who is chosen by the cabinet and the NEC to occupy this briefly glittering position, like that of a mayfly. Or, once again, Mrs Beckett will be the mayfly of the month. Who can tell? Or, indeed, who cares? As far as the Labour Party and its rules for the election of leader are concerned, not many people are worried one way or the other.

But solid citizens may be more exercised by the position of Prime Minister. If I read the rules correctly, the Prime Minister of this country, whether Mrs Beckett or somebody else, will first of all be chosen, neither by the electorate generally nor by Labour's electoral college, but by a combination of the cabinet and the National Executive.

As Mr Brown will himself be a candidate, it does not seem to be proper to fill any vacancy for the forthcoming contest with the Chancellor. In 1994, however, Mrs Beckett was briefly made leader and managed to lose both the leadership and the deputy leadership. I am sure no similar misfortune will befall Mr Brown. It still seems pretty silly to me.

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