Frightened and vicious. A bad combination

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The Independent Online

We are going through a period which invites the usual phrases: end of an era, never glad confident morning and, of course, things can never be the same again. For Mr Tony Blair, the crucial month is not August, when matters traditionally become rather worse. It is not even September, when Lord Hutton's report is due to be published. It is October, when the Labour conference meets in Bournemouth. Under the party's rules, it is the only body that has the power to get rid of a Labour Prime Minister.

It does not do the electing, which is for the new electoral college established under John Smith and made up of a third each of MPs, constituency members and trade unionists. It is one of the confidence tricks of modern times that the People's Party is a wholehearted convert to the virtuous principle of one member, one vote. Not a bit of it.

Similarly, the resolution at the conference calling for the election to be held has to be passed by a simple majority on a card vote. This means that it is governed by the brothers from the branches. For though this block vote is not the force it once was, it still amounts to a healthy - or, if you prefer, an iniquitous - 50 per cent. The result is that the initial fate of Mr Blair is in the hands of assorted Bills and Berts or rather, in these days, Dereks and Kevins.

It is only after this preliminary stage that matters move to the House of Commons. Even here, MPs do not enjoy a monopoly as they used to in those happier days when they elected James Callaghan to succeed Harold Wilson as Prime Minister and Michael Foot to succeed Callaghan as leader. But the candidate must still be a Labour MP whose nomination has to receive the support, depending on the circumstances, of a specified proportion of members. If the candidate is challenging an incumbent, he or she must have 20 per cent, or 83. If, however, the contest is new - after, say, a death or a resignation - the proportion falls to 12.5, or 52.

When the party is in opposition, these requirements are clear enough. When the election takes place following a vote at the party conference - which is required only when the leader is also Prime Minister - the position is less obvious. My own view is that, to take our candidates from the existing set-up, it would depend on the attitude adopted by Mr Blair.

Suppose he says: "I intend to take no notice whatever of this ridiculous vote engineered by assorted Dereks and Kevins. I shall carry on as Prime Minister, a post to which I was not only elected, twice, by the British people, but appointed by Her Majesty the Queen." In the party this defiant attitude would avail him nothing. The election would still have to go ahead as demanded by the conference.

Or, on second thoughts, maybe not. Mr Blair, despite - or perhaps because of - his legal training, is no great respecter of rules, even less so if they do not serve his own immediate interests. Such is the mood of lawlessness in No 10, reminiscent today of nowhere so much as of Richard Nixon's White House, that one could see Mr Blair, supported by Mr Alastair Campbell, urging the repeal of that section of the Parliament Act which requires an election to be held within five years (and a bit).

But assuming Mr Blair played by the rules, a party election would have to be held. If, however, he hung on in No 10, as he would be entitled to do, Mr Gordon Brown would have to secure the backing of 83 Labour MPs, which, in my opinion, he would not have the slightest difficulty in doing in the present unsettled circumstances. But suppose Mr Blair follows Matthew Arnold's advice:

Let the long contention cease!

Geese are swans, and swans are geese.

Let them have it how they will!

Thou art tired; best be still!

With Mr Blair departed, Mr Brown and various other bright sparks who fancied themselves - perhaps Mr Peter Hain, even Ms Clare Short - would need the support of 52 members each.

Writing in The Guardian last week, Ms Polly Toynbee did not mention the need for a vote at the conference and went on to claim that any candidate challenging Mr Blair required the support of 25 per cent of Labour MPs. Where she got this figure from I do not know, but no matter. Ms Toynbee belongs to the school who consider that it would be demented for Labour to jettison Mr Blair at this or even at any stage. I well remember her taking the same view of Dr David Owen and the SDP, continuing to maintain her favourable opinion of him even after the party had altogether ceased to exist, having merged itself with the Liberals.

The present version is that only Mr Blair, our most belligerent Prime Minister since Lord Palmerston, can win the next election for Labour - that the Tories are frightened of Mr Blair as of Mr Brown they are not. Indeed, the story goes that, in the private chapel which is to be found in the basement of Conservative Central Office, they are giving daily prayers for the elevation of the Chancellor. "O Lord," they say, "we do not ask for much. Just send us Gordon Brown, and we can do the rest."

In 1990, by contrast, Mr Neil Kinnock did not take the same view of Mrs Margaret Thatcher. He thought she was his not very secret weapon and wanted her to stay. I do not know what his views were about Mr Michael Heseltine, but other Labour leaders thought he was their greatest danger. No one thought much about Mr John Major, who nevertheless went on to win the 1992 election. Until the moment of her fall, Mrs Thatcher was considered secure in office.

Harold Macmillan's departure in autumn 1963 was a surprise because he had just about survived the summer storm of the Profumo affair. Until recently the accepted version was that he went because of an incorrect prognosis following a prostate operation. But the son of the surgeon involved has maintained convincingly that his father said that, after a period of rest, there was no reason why Macmillan should not continue as Prime Minister. As things turned out, he went on to live to the great age of 92.

In 1967, in the similar but less serious D-Notice affair, Wilson appointed a committee of Lord Radcliffe, Emanuel Shinwell and Selwyn Lloyd. They found against the government; whereupon the government overturned their report in a whipped vote. The present government in its present mood, at once frightened and vicious, is perfectly capable of behaving in the same way towards Lord Hutton's findings. But the Labour Party may be more reluctant to follow Mr Blair in 2003 than it was to support Wilson in 1967. And, whatever happens in the Commons, there is always that troublesome conference to come.