Bruce Anderson: Is Alan Johnson the new John Major?

Gordon Brown now says he wants a contest. That is just as well. He has no hope of a coronation
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Even before Charles Clarke hammered home the point, we already knew Gordon Brown was intellectually arrogant. There is only one other member of the Government whose intellect the Chancellor respects, and that is for the wrong reasons. Ed Balls is a clever man; clever enough to realise that as Mr Brown's number one loyalist, he must always tell the boss what he wants to hear. No monkey has ever been so obsequious to the organ grinder.

To judge by yesterday's interview, however, Gordon Brown must think that the average voter is as thick as the average Blairite minister. But if he seriously expects anyone who can chew gum and walk at the same time to accept that he knew nothing about the plots against Mr Blair, he will be in for a rude surprise. What are we supposed to believe? That Gordon woke up one morning, switched on the radio, and said to Sarah: "Gosh! There is a conspiracy against Tony Blair. Who could be responsible for such a dastardly deed?'' If Mr Brown is innocent of plotting, Santa Claus is now checking on the fitness of his reindeers.

It is also clear to the meanest intelligence that the Brownites did not call off their coup because they had failed to brief its leader. They backed away because they had made a double miscalculation. As they have come to hold Tony Blair in contempt, they grossly underestimated him. Assuming that he was merely a piece of overripe fruit on the lowest bough of politics, they thought that if half a dozen Parliamentary political pygmies wrote him a letter, he would capitulate. Though he might beg for a couple of days' grace - need time to pack up all Cherie's freebies - he would humbly accept his dismissal. In their dreams.

Which rapidly turned to a nightmare, when they not only encountered opposition from the PM, but ferocious resistance from other colleagues. A couple of years ago, I drew an analogy between Gordon Brown and Anthony Eden. In the early Fifties, a number of Eden's senior colleagues were full of foreboding at the thought of his succeeding Churchill. They knew that Anthony would cock it up. Eden did succeed and vindicated the doubters. For Anthony Eden then, read Gordon Brown now.

Over the past two years, there has been a change. A lot of Mr Brown's senior colleagues are no longer so fatalistic or so acquiescent. They do not want to spend the next few years competing with Ed Balls for the role of Gordon Brown's homunculus. Here, Charles Clarke has a crucial role. Although there are a number of possible comparisons with the Tory leadership crisis in 1990, none seems more improbable than Charles Clarke playing the role of Geoffrey Howe. Yet he is.

In 1990, Sir Geoffrey was convinced that Margaret Thatcher had to go. He knew that he could not unseat her, but he thought that Michael Heseltine might. For once, Hezza was hesitating. Sir Geoffrey Howe made a speech which cut off his retreat.

Charles Clarke is equally determined to stop Gordon. We can instantly discount all this nonsense about Mr Brown somehow changing his character and proving that he could run a collegiate government. Change character, at 55? Even Mr Brown's greatest detractors - there are many competitors for that role - would not compare him to Uriah Heep. Anyway, there is an obvious difference between Mr Clarke's comments and Gordon Brown's disclaimers. Mr Clarke does not expect anyone to believe him. By describing the circumstances in which Mr Brown could be a good PM, Charles Clarke is intent on proving that it is impossible.

But Charles Clarke too is worried by hesitancy. So he went on the attack. In so doing, he was destroying his own chances of becoming Premier. But if he could also destroy Mr Brown, he was happy to act as a suicide bomber.

He certainly blew up the Brownites. If they had continued their campaign, he would have given an interview a day, each one of them providing Conservative Central Office with a year's worth of knocking copy. Even in the fraughtest of Tory years, no former Cabinet minister turned on a leadership candidate with such sustained venom and ferocity.

In that regard, Charles Clarke has some rivals in No 10. A former Downing Street advisor was recently asked whether Gordon Brown was semi-autistic. "What do you mean, semi?'' came the reply. No 10 is also determined to clear up the historical record. For the past nine years, Gordon Brown has regularly boasted about his role in giving independence to the Bank of England; yesterday, he was at it again. But No 10 is now revealing the truth. Back in 1997, Gordon Brown was extremely reluctant to take that step, and had to have his arm forced up his back by Tony Blair.

Returning to Mr Clarke, his efforts have had one immediate success. He has turned Alan Johnson into a major political figure. No one knows much about Mr Johnson, yet. Everyone is agog to find out. Forget Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron - or Charles Clarke. Over the next few weeks, no politician's remarks will come under such intense, microscopic, Kremlinological scrutiny. Mr Johnson will merely have to express a preference for tea over coffee, and commentators will argue whether this is a leadership bid.

So is Alan Johnson the new John Major: Gordon Brown, today's Michael Heseltine? Back in 1990, Frank Johnson, the funniest writer about modern British politics, wrote a characteristic piece. Imagine what Hezza must have felt, said Frank. He had done the impossible. He had toppled Mrs Thatcher. The way to the winning post lay clear. But what is this? Tearing up the course, at an irresistible pace, on his shoulder, at his elbow - came the Grey Streak to pass him and win. So will Alan Johnson be Gordon Brown's Grey Streak? We can only be sure of one point. It is no longer certain that Mr Brown will succeed Mr Blair. Mr Brown now says he wants a contest, not a coronation. That is just as well. He has no hope of a coronation.

Some Tories are beginning to worry about Mr Johnson. Everybody seems to like him; there may be no overwhelming positives yet, but nor are there any negatives. Yet the Tories' anxieties may be overstated. Let us suppose that Alan Johnson won and set off to the Palace to kiss hands. By the time he returned to Downing Street, the entrance would be blocked by barricades and Brownites waving revolvers. In defeat, Gordon Brown would make Mexico's Señor Obrador seem magnanimous. If he cannot wreck the Labour government as a successful leadership candidate, he would certainly do so if he loses.