History is lived forwards but written backwards. This leads historians into temptation. From the armchairs of hindsight, it is easy to believe that what actually happened was inevitable – when at the time, the course of events was beset by uncertainty.
Thus it is with Gordon Brown. In late 2006, there was widespread unease in the Labour Party about the Brown succession and some of those who knew him best were the most uneasy. Back then, I drew the comparison with Anthony Eden. In the early Fifties, although it seemed inevitable that Eden would succeed Churchill, a number of senior Tories had doubts. They felt that somehow, Anthony would cock it up, which he did.
For Eden, read Brown. As Churchill's retirement approached, the doubts were suppressed. There was no othercandidate. By 2007, the same was true of Gordon Brown. Thereafter, fates diverged. Within weeks of taking over, Anthony Eden fought and won an election. That gave him his own mandate, which perished at Suez. If Gordon Brown had gone to the country in early October 2007, he too would have won a mandate.Although he would now face problems, he would have had two advantages over Eden. First, no Suez: second, whatever the economy's difficulties, the Tory party's would be worse. As it is, Gordon Brown's wrong decision will have a dramatic impact on Britishpolitical history.
Until eight months ago, he was the master of the political battlefield. It seemed far from inconceivable that he might have a long premiership to rival Tony Blair's. Now, it is not even certain that his party will let him fight the next election. Mr Brown believed that he was a man of destiny who would put his own moral stamp on politics and who would earn a proper place in history, untainted by Blairite meretriciousness. Well, he will earn a place in history; all PMs do. But his will be a mere ex-officio entry. He is doomed to rank for eternity with Balfour, Bonar Law, Eden and Callaghan: the nonentities and the failures.
A comparison is also drawn with John Major. This is grossly unfair to Sir John. The Major premiership saw: Gulf War I, the Maastricht Treaty and its opt-outs, the conquest of inflation, the Northern Ireland peace process. Prime Minister Major also won the 1992 election.Gordon Brown has no remotely comparable achievements. John Major's record would be better appreciated if some of his own party had not succeeded in destroying their government.
Even so, John Major wonre-election in a secret ballot by his own MPs in 1995, a feat which Gordon Brown is unlikely to emulate. Moreover, right until the end, John Major retainedthe affection and respect –albeit sometimes tinged with exasperation – of nearly all his Cabinet colleagues.
This weekend the Labour Cabinet was divided into three groups. There are those who think that Gordon Brown should go, those who are planning to run against him – and those who are so obscure that no one has asked them for their opinions. Although none of the warring factions is likely to take counsel from this column, it shall be offered. They should choose the least badoption: to relax, then support their leader. Anything else would have a worse outcome.
Consider the psychology of the individual. From what we know of Gordon Brown, is he likely to admit failure and walk away, or would he offer the most almighty resistance? Unless his health implodes, there is only one answer. So a successful coup would leave more gore on the stage than in the most extravagant Jacobean melodrama. Given the Labour Party's procedures, which are designed to protect incumbents from challenges, the butchery could take months. The voters would be sickened; the party would drown in its own blood.
The new leader – a term which could only be used ironically – would face overwhelming pressure to call an election. The electorate would not accept a third Premier in a single Parliament. The new one could disregard that and stagger on. What would be the point? The votes would neither forget nor forgive. Today, there are only two realistic alternatives for Labour: defeat or disaster.
The best hope of avoiding disaster would be to reunite around Gordon Brown. This week, the entire Cabinet should endorse him. At the same time, Mr Brown should announce that there will be a general election next June, to coincide with the Euro elections. Between now and then, he would launch a national debate on the theme "Whither Britain?" He would frankly acknowledge that his government had made mistakes, for which he took responsibility. But he still believed, as he would argue with every molecule of intellect, conviction and passion in his being, that he and his party had the right policies and the right values.
If he and his Labour colleagues were to take this advice, they could still give David Cameron a run for his money. Instead, however, the party will stagger on, leaky, fractious and fratricidal, desperate for something to turn up, in the market for any quack political remedy, incapable of unity, incapable of being led. Its leader will also stagger on, like a dinosaur whose backside is on fire and is dimly aware of the smoke reaching its nostrils.Electoral extinction beckons.
The Tory party is enjoying the long weekend. Indeed, there is probably only one Tory household in the land where enjoyment has not swollen into complacency. David Cameron has learned one lesson from the events of the last few months. He knows that the electorate is volatile. Commentators and psephologists are talking learnedly about tipping-points and assuring one an other that it is impossible for Mr Brown to recover. Mr Cameron is unmoved. He is not interested in trends, polls or precedents. He believes that he and his party still have a great deal of work to do.
In this, he has one advantage. Some journalists who ought to know better are still writing as if the Cameron Tories were apolicy-free zone. In reality, over 1,000 pages of policy material was published last summer. Mr Cameron has presided over a policy-making exercise which is at least as thorough as any Opposition has ever commissioned. But he still has to turn the minutiae of policy into the electoral weight of a political platform. This is the next task.
At a time when most voters are uneasy about their economic prospects, David Cameron must also sound tough-minded and realistic. So he faces challenges, but that should be of no comfort to Labour. The Tories' challenges are well within their leader's grasp.Reuse content