Sunday 14 June 2009
Alan Watkins: This is a farce, but the timing is dire
If Labour is incapable of organising a reshuffle in a brewery, how is it ever to get rid of Gordon Brown?
The kindest thing to say about the Labour Party is that it would be incapable of organising a reshuffle in a brewery. As for getting rid of a prime minister, the difficulties pass all understanding. The only single person to have managed the feat was George Fyffe in 1931 (aided and abetted by his private secretary Sir Clive Wigram). In that year, Ramsay MacDonald replaced himself as the new head of an ostensibly National – in reality, Conservative – government.
There were plots against CR Attlee and Harold Wilson, but they came to nothing. There was even a murmur about replacing James Callaghan with Denis Healey in 1979. This was not to be confused with the plot to replace Michael Foot with Healey in 1983, which was more serious than the earlier conspiracy.
By then, Labour was once more in opposition. Even so, Labour leaders who failed to reach No 10 have proved durable, with the exception of George Lansbury. It was always thus, and last week it was even thusser.
Another exception was provided by the resignation of Mr Tony Blair. This was brought about by the great email conspiracy of September 2006. It was caused by the war in Lebanon. Mr Blair refused to condemn the fighting. It was towards the end of the recess, the party conference was approaching, and – while the outrage in the parliamentary party was understandable – Satan made work for idle hands.
Mr Blair announced his departure at that year's party conference, to take effect at some time before the next conference. In the end, it took him the best part of nine months to make his farewells before handing over to Mr Gordon Brown in an uncontested election.
Last week, by the way, Mr Brown, at his press conference, went out of his way to point out that he had been elected unopposed as leader in 2007. The trouble was that no one else could be found to stand against him. His candidature had been endorsed by virtually the entire parliamentary party,
This is a perfectly fair point for Mr Brown to make, though one cannot help thinking that people did not look very hard or very far before engraving his name on the silver tankard. Mr Brown is in search of what used to be called legitimacy.
My guess is that hostilities will break out again some time in the late autumn. Once again, there will be a test, or a series of tests, whether got up by the politicians, by the press or by both groups. Once again, he will fail one of them or several. and, once again, Mr Brown will still be at his post, urged on by the idiot cries of "More, more" at Prime Minister's Questions, and the banging of desk tops – both of them, incidentally, ancient Tory practices – at the meeting of the parliamentary party in the committee room upstairs.
There will always be a first time for everything. But, with odd and arguable exceptions – such as MacDonald and Blair – Labour prime ministers stay where they are. If something exceptional does happen later this year or early next year, Labour should stand by its traditions and have an election. A good deal of the troubles of the past 15 years could have been avoided if Mr Brown had fought a party election in 1994, and another one in 2007.
There is a lot to be said for having a structure in place. But then, there is a perfectly good structure in the
party rules. I do not want to go into them all over again for fear of seeming tedious. The short point is that Mr Alan Johnson or Mr David Miliband (a late re-entrant in the betting, goodness knows why) cannot simply be imposed on the country as prime minister.
The simpler souls may reply that no one should any longer be imposed on the country as the result of a party election, which was what happened with Callaghan and John Major. The era of internal party elections may be coming to an end.
Certainly, Mr Brown himself has not been at all keen on elections, whether of himself or of other people. It is not so much that Mr Brown is against women – the row has been largely concocted by bored features editors – as that he is in favour of the House of Lords. He has more peers working for him than Harold Macmillan had in his cabinet.
Oddly enough, Mr Brown says he wants the upper house to be wholly or largely elected. Of course, it should be wholly elected. But we have been round this course several times before over the past 12 years. On every occasion, there has been stalemate, or the House of Commons has supported two or more contradictory solutions.
Mr Brown has the habit of propounding large and general notions which do not have the remotest chance of ever being put into practice. At least Lord Mandelson is an enthusiast for the alternative vote, whose forces have been strengthened by Mr Peter Hain's move to the Cabinet. Mr Brown, however, would first have a referendum, as part of an election, which he is likely to lose. He would almost certainly lose the general election; while a separate referendum on electoral reform as a separate question might well fail on account of the unpopularity of Mr Brown, the Labour government or politicians generally. In any case, Lord Mandelson has other things on his mind.
In the last week, I have heard him described as the new deputy prime minister. His maternal grandfather, Herbert Morrison, was both deputy PM and deputy leader of the Labour Party under Attlee. In 1945 Attlee simply asked Morrison to be his deputy leader; Morrison was first elected to this post in 1952, and lost it four years later.
The position of deputy PM comes and goes; the last Labour occupant was Mr John Prescott. Mr Brown did not offer the extra job to Ms Harriet Harman, who has quite enough of her own already. The latest occupant of the somewhat bogus position of First Secretary of State is Lord Mandelson. The first was R A Butler. He was deputy PM during the same period.
I think it would be difficult for Mr Brown to make Lord Mandelson his deputy because he is in the Lords. And life peers, as I understand the position, cannot disclaim a peerage. So for the time being, Lord Mandelson is stuck.
Still, such is our corrupt system of government, any prime minister can work wonders with titles, honours and awards. I think a new television award would give the first prize as a year's apprenticeship under Lord, formerly Sir Alan, Sugar, and the second prize as two years' apprenticeship under the same electronic peer, who has now, I read, moved to other fields of commercial endeavour.
Clearly, the Brown government has moved to a new level of farce. The story goes that one of the No 10 aides was asking the other day:
"Does Esther Rantzen have a law degree?"
"Why?" he was asked.
"Because we were thinking of offering her the job of Attorney General."
It might almost be true. The Government would do anything to get even a little bit of popularity in these desperate times.
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