Phoenix-from-the-Ashes is one of the great abiding motifs of political journalism. No doubt I have gone in for it myself from time to time. My favourite example is Edward Heath as Leader of the Opposition in 1965-70. Every summer the stories would start up: "Ted under pressure... no impact... Wilson [the Labour Prime Minister] still in command... Tories: have we all made a terrible mistake?... Conference crucial..."
The conference would duly start in October amid gloomy predictions about the future of Mr Heath. He would try to safeguard his position by delivering not one but two speeches, the first at the beginning of the conference, the second at the end, a cruel and unusual punishment for all concerned if ever there was one. But it invariably worked all the same. A standing ovation was duly arranged for both occasions.
This, indeed, is the origin of this particular form of demonstration at party conferences: the pressing need to consolidate Sir Edward's position, such as it was, in the Conservative Party of that time. And following the cheers would come the stories, like the dustcart - which, as a matter of fact, I have never witnessed - after the Lord Mayor's Show: "Ted Heath yesterday confounded his critics... master of his party... Tories overjoyed..." They had to wait till the next decade before he finally took himself off.
Nevertheless, it is this forced departure in favour of Margaret Thatcher rather than his previous spell of being tolerated which typifies his party. It is hard to think of Tory leaders since Neville Chamberlain, including prime ministers, as most of them were, who have gone both quietly and willingly. Lord Home, Mr John Major and Mr William Hague come nearest, I suppose. The troubles of the Tories since the rise of Mr Tony Blair, now assuaged by Mr Michael Howard - for how long, who can tell? - are not a new phenomenon. They have always been there, and they have usually been resolved in an undignified fashion in which someone is hurt.
The People's Party has, by contrast, been a model of decorum, indeed, of charity. Since Ramsay MacDonald left the party in 1931, to be succeeded briefly by Arthur Henderson, only one leader can be said to have been given the heave-ho: the pacifist George Lansbury, who was leader till he was succeeded by C R Attlee in 1935.
When Labour won the general election 10 years later, Harold Laski (an academic and a leading figure in the Movement who was not an MP) wanted Attlee to confirm his position with the parliamentary party before accepting office. This was a ploy to make Herbert Morrison Prime Minister in his place. Ernest Bevin advised: "You get down to the Palace quick, Clem." Later there was at least one plot to replace Attlee, possibly more: but nothing came of them. He may have hung on for too long till he finally went in 1955, being christened "Lord Limpet" by the Daily Mirror. He carried on partly (or so the accepted wisdom goes) to frustrate Morrison's chances of succeeding him. Perhaps Mr Blair is now following the same course with Mr Gordon Brown.
At all events, Attlee went at a time of his own choosing and was succeeded by Hugh Gaitskell, who enjoyed periods of popularity in the party at the time of Suez, immediately after the 1959 election (even though he had lost it heavily) and after his death. Harold Wilson had made an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge him in 1960. Whether Aneurin Bevan would have succeeded if he had lived - and if he had stood - is an unprofitable speculation.
As Prime Minister, Wilson survived several plots to dislodge him, ranging from the ravings of Cecil King of the Daily Mirror (until he himself was displaced) to more substantial talk by his colleagues, which was, however, never wholly serious and of which the supposed beneficiaries were to be either James Callaghan or even Roy Jenkins. At one point Wilson said at a London rally: "I know what's going on. I am going on." And so he did, until his resignation in 1976, which came as a surprise to most of his colleagues (except Harold Lever) and had, as this implies, been in no way forced on him by them.
Lord Callaghan succeeded him without the slightest constitutional trouble or fuss, though several of the crustier authorities had maintained that no Prime Minister could be elected by MPs. There was no such difficulty, similarly, when Mr Major succeeded Lady Thatcher in 1990. Lord Callaghan behaved with complete propriety in 1976; when he resigned after a "no confidence" motion in 1979; when he continued as leader, even though he did not want to; not least, when he put his Conservative predecessors to shame by his impeccable conduct in retirement.
There was one plot against his successor, Mr Michael Foot, in 1983. It was that, if Labour lost the Darlington by-election of that year, Mr Foot would resign on account of ill-health, producing what in best working-class parlance was called a "doctor's letter" to that effect, and would be succeeded automatically, even if only for the time being, by his deputy Denis Healey. But Labour won the by-election in question. In any case, Mr Foot might not have fallen in with the plot.
Mr Neil Kinnock enjoyed, if that is the word, nine years which were rather less successful than more. Though there were grumbles, he was challenged only once: by Mr Tony Benn, in 1988, whom he defeated overwhelmingly.
If, after the vote on top-up fees and the publication of Lord Hutton's report, Mr Blair is still resting his head of a night at 11 Downing Street (where he still rests it, rather than at No 10), he will not be Mr Phoenix-from-the-Ashes. He will be in the same position as that which all Labour Prime Ministers have occupied at one time or another: bedraggled, authority gone, but still there.
Moreover, he has one prop to his security which they did not possess. In Attlee's day there were several plausible successors: not only Bevin but an equally large figure in Stafford Cripps, not to mention the perpetual bridesmaid Morrison. In the age of Wilson there was Callaghan and, conceivably, Jenkins. In Mr Blair's Britain there is Mr Brown - and no one else. As Karl Marx noted of John Stuart Mill, he stands out because of the flatness of the surrounding countryside.
Mr Blair and his assistants have, over the years, tried to create alternative successors to the Prime Minister, or, if you prefer, other rivals to Mr Brown. For a time Mr David Blunkett was thrust forward, but he did not last; not, at any rate, in this capacity. Today the nearest thing to another Mr Brown is perhaps Dr John Reid, who shares his Scotchness and his pugnacity but not his air of being a romantic hero in need of a pick-me-up. At the end of the month I still expect to see Mr Blair and Mr Brown where they are now. I only hope Mr Brown does not turn out to be Morrison to Mr Blair's Attlee.Reuse content