Andrew Grice: A shift in the balance of power – to Mandelson

Inside Politics
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The Independent Online

As the Cabinet gathered for its weekly meeting at 9.30am yesterday, the mood was rather surreal. There were plenty of raised eyebrows, as if to say: "We're all still here."

The backbench plotters against Gordon Brown had predicted that he would no longer be here as prime minister by the end of the week because enough Cabinet ministers would back their call for a secret ballot of Labour MPs on whether he should lead the party into the general election. They were wrong – again.

Mr Brown, who is described as "chastened but stoic", was in hyperactive mode at the 90-minute Cabinet meeting, demanding a "laser-like focus" from his ministers on the economic recovery and the problems being caused by the weather.

The Cabinet discussed the failed plot at length and ministers were horrified by it. Not the one against Mr Brown, but the attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner on Christmas Day. The failed plot against Mr Brown was not mentioned. Later, ministers described the mood round the Cabinet table as "surprisingly buoyant". One optimistic member said: "The failed coup has lanced the boil. We now know we are fighting the election with Gordon and we can get on with it."

On Thursday, Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary and Brown loyalist, talked of a "happy Cabinet". Well, you could have fooled me – and the rebel backbenchers who had reason to believe that their insurrection would be joined by a majority of the Cabinet.

The rebellion against him told us more about what his Cabinet thought about Mr Brown than what his backbenchers did. Ignore the official line that ministers did not rush on to the airwaves to defend him when the coup was launched because they did not want to give it credence by overreacting. In the age of 24-hour news, ministers would have responded quickly if they had been fully behind Mr Brown. When James Purnell resigned from the Cabinet last June, they popped up on TV within minutes. This week, they took hours – and made Mr Brown sweat. "We went on strike," one Cabinet member told me yesterday.

There was collusion between Harriet Harman, Jack Straw, Alistair Darling and David Miliband as they demanded of Mr Brown better decision-making, a more collegiate approach to his Cabinet and a clearer election strategy. They did not collude with Lord Mandelson because they regard him as Mr Brown's "human shield" after he protected the Prime Minister when Mr Purnell quit.

On Wednesday, Lord Mandelson extracted his own concessions over the way the Government's economic strategy is presented. He has appeared semi-detached from Mr Brown since losing an important battle with Ed Balls over last month's pre-Budget report (PBR). Lord Mandelson, like Mr Darling, wanted more emphasis on the need for spending cuts than Mr Balls, who wanted to trumpet the higher spending on schools (his own patch), health and the police. Mr Brown sided with Mr Balls, in effect overruling the Chancellor over his flagship statement even though he was not strong enough to install Mr Balls at the Treasury after Mr Purnell quit.

Some ministers take the Prime Minister's promises to be more collegiate with enough pinches of salt to keep the roads open for weeks. They have heard it all before – notably during previous rebellions. "A leopard doesn't change his spots," one minister said.

However, there is reason to believe the balance of power in the Cabinet has shifted as a result of this week's events. Even those who are not his natural allies say the position of Lord Mandelson has been strengthened. The other winner could be Mr Darling, anxious to reassure the financial markets that the Government is serious about halving the public deficit in four years. "It's not that the PBR is wrong, just that we have been selling only one half of it – the higher spending," one ally of the Chancellor said in a dig at Mr Brown and Mr Balls.

Although Mr Brown survived, he is not, as his close allies claim, in a stronger position than he was a week ago. Having flexed their collective muscles once, ministers believe they can hold Mr Brown to his promises. "We withdrew our affections once; we can do it again," one Cabinet member said darkly.

It is easy to mock the plotters. By the end of the week, the rebels were even mocking themselves. One admitted: "It was a bit like an African coup. We seized control of the radio station and made a broadcast but we weren't sure which way the army would be facing when we came out."

Yet there is little for Labour to smile about this weekend. A ComRes poll for the BBC yesterday hinted at the damage to the party. It found that 60 per cent of voters regard Labour as the most divided party, with only 17 per cent citing the Tories and 10 per cent the Liberal Democrats.

There is also immense frustration round the Cabinet table that Labour turned in on itself in a week when David Cameron no longer looked invincible. He got in a tangle over his party's policy to reward marriage in the tax system, giving Labour hope that the four-month election campaign might yet expose the unresolved contradictions in Tory policies – not least, how to pay for them in the freezing financial climate. Mr Brown got the better of Mr Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions but all the voters saw was Labour MPs trying to oust their leader. "It should have been a bad week for Cameron," one Cabinet minister said. "We let him off the hook."

Some Labour folk insist that the cack-handed rebellion provoked a cathartic moment in the Cabinet which will result in an effective election strategy. Yet I wonder whether Labour, after 13 years in power, is capable of turning all its guns on the Tories. The actions of some leading Labour figures seem determined by their own future prospects rather than their party's – a dangerous sign.

Gloomy Labour MPs talk about their ranks being reduced from 350 to 200, and electing a Michael Foot rather than a Tony Blair figure. There is even the first tearoom chatter about who will do well in the Shadow Cabinet elections, an annual beauty contest among Labour MPs when the party is in opposition.

Indeed, the lasting impression of a momentous week is of a party resigned to defeat at the general election and which now has its eyes on the leadership election that will follow.

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