Alas, Mr Brown, life is not like that

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The Independent Online

Long before bullying became a useful topic for columnists in search of a subject, we had all known of big boys in the playground who set two smaller boys on each other, just for the pleasure of seeing a fight. Clearly, big girls can behave in exactly the same way. The latest so to do is Ms Clare Short. She is urging Mr Gordon Brown to be bold and resolute, no doubt bloody also if need be, and to challenge Mr Tony Blair before the election.

To be fair to Ms Short, I do not think she simply wants to see a fight, as some in the press understandably do, because it is good for trade. She honestly believes Mr Blair is a bad Prime Minister - even, perhaps, a bad man - and that Mr Brown would be a distinct improvement in all kinds of ways. But then, people believe that Peter Pears was a great tenor, that Buckingham Palace is a handsome building and that Madonna is a beautiful woman. People are prepared to believe all kinds of extraordinary things.

Likewise there are many, including Ms Short, who want to believe that a Chancellor whose principal weapon of policy is the means-test in various forms has a purer vein of socialism running through him than the present Prime Minister. And, of course, there is Iraq. But Mr Brown supported that adventure: or, at any rate, he judged it expedient to give the enterprise a gruff and belated blessing.

However, there is no doubt about it, Mr Brown is in a difficult position. To this extent, Ms Short is perfectly right. Let us rehearse the schedule which Mr Blair outlined - or, rather, laid down in greater or lesser detail - a fortnight last Thursday. There is a comfortable win (about which I retain my doubts) in May 2005. There is then a full term, which takes us to 2009. Mr Blair says that he is going to serve a third but not a fourth term, which is impossible: he is bound to retire sometime before the election of 2009.

But when? He is not prepared to say. His successor will have to have some time. Anthony Eden had seven weeks at No 10 before the 1955 election; Alec Douglas-Home a year before the 1964 election; and John Major a full 17 months before the 1992 election. Harold Wilson would have gone in 1972 if, as he had expected, he had won in 1970.

The party conference of autumn 2008 would clearly be a good time for Mr Blair to commend his successor to the Movement, or what is left of it by then. This would mean that the voting would have had to take place in the summer. Mr Brown would then be 57. The National Executive and the Cabinet would then agree on an acting leader and, therefore, an acting prime minister to carry on until an election could be completed. In practice it would be absurd to appoint an interim figure if Mr Blair were fit to continue until after the party election.

In all this we should remember Mr Blair's tendency to regard party rules or, for that matter, international law as a series of norms which can, if necessary, be dispensed with or added to in the interests of the greater good, as defined by Mr Blair. So it was that at the last conference a new interpretation of the rules was invented for his protection, whereby he could not be challenged for the leadership until an election had been demanded by 20 per cent of Labour MPs. This is a complete distortion of what the rules lay down. What they say is that, after a contest has been requisitioned by the conference, any challenger or challengers to the incumbent must have the support of 20 per cent of the parliamentary party. If, however, Mr Blair stands down voluntarily, as he wants to do - and as is still the most likely outcome - the proportion of required support for each candidate falls to 12.5 per cent.

Mr Brown would not have the slightest difficulty in attaining that level of backing. But neither would several other figures of pomp and power in the People's Party: Mr Charles Clarke, Mr Peter Hain, Mr Alan Milburn (the latest smart-money candidate), Dr John Reid and Mr Jack Straw, to name but a few.

There seems to be an idea floating around among Mr Brown's supporters that, sooner rather than later - though not so soon now as they had previously hoped - Mr Blair will step gracefully off the podium and Mr Brown will bound energetically on to it, to the applause of a grateful nation. Life is not quite like that. It is certainly not like that in the Labour Party.

Except in 1931-35, in the confused period following the formation of the National government, every single election for leader has been contested. The average number of candidates is three, almost exactly, as near as makes no difference. In 1976, when the parliamentary party chose James Callaghan to succeed Wilson, there were no fewer than six candidates to begin with.

This was the first time the Labour Party had chosen a new Prime Minister. Indeed, it was the first time any party had chosen a Prime Minister while in office. The accession of Winston Churchill in 1940, Eden in 1955, Harold Macmillan in 1957 and Douglas-Home in 1963 had all been accompanied by varying degrees of skulduggery and a constant amount of dissatisfaction. Indeed, following Eden's resignation in January 1957, the Labour shadow cabinet issued a statement saying that, in comparable circumstances, the parliamentary party would hold an election. This duly happened in 1976.

The Palace was perfectly happy about this development, as it was about the similar move to democracy in the Conservative Party after 1964. But the high priests of prerogative, such as Norman St John-Stevas, were horrified. As things turned out, electing a Prime Minister worked perfectly well in 1976, as it did for the Conservative Party in 1990. In both cases the departing Prime Minister, respectively Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, simply stayed in office until the election had been completed.

The change is that the Labour Party went over to an electoral college in 1981 and a marginally more representative college in 1993. The Conservatives adopted a different system again after 1997. This produced Mr Iain Duncan Smith but did not really produce Mr Michael Howard. For the Tories had acquired a justified distrust of party democracy and decided to bring forth the royal diadem and crown him lord of all instead. There are those in the upper reaches of the Labour Party who want, so to speak, to do a Howard, with Mr Brown playing the part of the anointed one. It is a ramp that should be resisted. Mr Brown should have to face a contest, just as every other leader has done.