Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Will Labour learn to be as ruthless as the Tories?
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The Independent Online

In a Commons bar, Labour MPs relived a plot in the late Sixties to depose Harold Wilson, a prime minister who had lost his authority. No prizes for guessing why: the question dominating Labour minds is whether the party should soldier on with Gordon Brown or find someone else to lead them into the next election.

Mr Brown's week of frenetic activity was unkindly named "Operation Stabilise Gordon" by one former cabinet minister. The fightback has not gone entirely according to plan. On Monday, his speech on long-term care for the elderly was overshadowed by the Labour MP Frank Field's prediction that he would stand down.

Tuesday's spectacular climbdown over the 10p tax rate propped up Mr Brown's wobbly position in the Parliamentary Labour Party but inflicted further damage to his economic credibility. That £2.7bn was conjured out of thin air to repair the 10p damage and try to stave off a recession, shows the depth of the hole Mr Brown is in. As he drew up his March Budget, Alistair Darling fretted about a backlash over the abolition of the 10p rate but decided he didn't have any spare cash to deal with it. Ten weeks later, he miraculously produces £2.7bn. No doubt the goalposts will move (again) so the Government doesn't break its fiscal rules, but the damage to its reputation is done. "Whatever happened to Prudence?" one minister asked.

On Wednesday, Mr Brown unveiled a draft package of Bills for the parliamentary session starting in November. But in the real world, it was eclipsed by a chilling warning from Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, that Britain could be heading towards recession.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister did an exhausting round of television and radio interviews and then took an hour of questions from journalists at Downing Street until they ran out of steam, as if to show he was still standing in the ring. Fittingly, Mr Brown even had a Wilson moment. In 1969, the Prime Minister told those plotting against him: "I know what's going on. I'm going on." Mr Brown, asked which cabinet colleagues were good enough to take over from him, said: "I'm doing the job."

So what did this frenzy achieve? John Denham, the Universities Secretary, argues on GMTV's Sunday programme tomorrow that Mr Brown has won "some space" to set out his stall to the voters. Privately, other ministers are not so sure. It's true that Labour MPs are happier bunnies than they were a week ago, the 10p boil having been lanced (for now, at least).

Mr Brown knows that in a week's time, he may be in the eye of a very big storm. I will eat my hat if Labour wins next Thursday's by-election in Crewe and Nantwich. The bigger the Tory majority – and it could be big – the bigger the Labour panic. What can Mr Brown do then? A draft Queen's Speech? Been there. Another marathon stint in the TV studios? Done that. A press conference? Don't call us. A cabinet reshuffle? It is the last card for Mr Brown to play, but there is no guarantee it would change anything. It rarely did much for Tony Blair.

What else has Mr Brown got left? "Two years," one ally told me. But has he? Limping through to the safe haven of the summer recess is the goal now, but July feels a long way away. If he can do that, he lives to fight another day, and will hope to close the opinion poll gap in the autumn. It may sound odd, but Mr Brown still hopes the economy can be his trump card when voters have to decide whether he or David Cameron should run the country, rather than whether to give Labour a kicking in council elections or Crewe.

His immediate problem is to win his "two years". Back in the Commons bar, the MPs recalled that Labour decided not to strike against Wilson, that his Chancellor, Roy Jenkins, bottled out, unwilling to wield the dagger. Traditionally, Labour shies away from regicide. The Tories are more ruthless, as Margaret Thatcher and Iain Duncan Smith, left, discovered.

If Labour MPs break with convention and move against Mr Brown, they will do so more in sorrow than anger. Most of them would be delighted to see him get back in the game. But they will be guided by what the public think of the Prime Minister. That's why Crewe matters, and is dangerous for Mr Brown.

"The public have stopped listening to Gordon," said one Labour MP who had been desperate for him to take over from Mr Blair. "The danger is that people have made up their minds about him."

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