Gordon Brown knows all about getting rid of prime ministers. After all, it was his supporters who organised the putsch against Tony Blair which enabled the then Chancellor to move next door to 10 Downing Street not much more than a year ago. At the time it must have seemed a beautifully executed manoeuvre. Gordon Brown's fingerprints were never found on the dagger in Mr Blair's back; and the victim nobly refused to cry vengeance against his assassin.
It all looks so much less clever now. Had Mr Brown and his band of brothers stayed their hands, and the then leader been allowed to stay for the further year he had sought, Mr Blair would still have been sitting where the buck stops when energy and food prices soared and the credit crunch bit.
Now Labour MPs are considering a second putsch – this time to remove the man who had not so long ago been presented to the nation as a cross between Demosthenes and Mother Teresa. It is all much more difficult now, however. This time the plotters have no candidate, or at least not one they can agree upon; and since it would be grotesque – if not actually unconstitutional – to pass the job of prime minister repeatedly between Labour MPs without bothering to seek the consent of the people, whoever did manage to wrest power from Gordon Brown would then have to go to the country in the most unpropitious of electoral circumstances.
The country, of course, would have no problem with being asked its opinion sooner rather than later. This, however, would miss the whole point of the ferment which now grips the Labour Party: it has nothing to do with the state of the country as a whole, or even what policies this or any alternative government might pursue. No, it is all about one thing only: the continued ability of a small group of men and women to draw the salaries and perks to which they have become accustomed, without fear of interruption or curtailment.
This was made startlingly clear in an article in yesterday's Guardian by the Labour-supporting columnist Jackie Ashley. Having been among those in the party who celebrated the coronation of King Gordon, she has now called for his execution. She urged ministers with a sense of political self-preservation to prepare the guillotine immediately, and argued: "If they don't move first, they will be forced to, by ordinary Labour MPs for equally basic reasons. One Labour worker put it like this: Being an MP 'is the best self-employed job there is; it's like running a small business and you make of it what you want to. But there are now more than 100 small business people whose businesses are going bust with no prospect of good alternative employment. They are the people who will move against Gordon'."
What a stinking state of affairs this sets out. It tells us that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be swept from the great office of state not because his party has lost a general election; not because of some scandal of corruption which makes him morally unfit for his position; not even because millions of people might be suffering economic hardship which they had been assured would not take place. No, the Prime Minister, on this insider's analysis, must be swept from office because a hundred or so sole traders, who are apparently unable or unwilling to contemplate alternative careers, are frightened of losing their jobs.
It is not even as if these hundred jobs would be lost to the workplace. They would simply be replaced by a hundred other MPs; and this, of course, is the point. They would be from a different political party. Power would change hands.
It is remarkable how New Labour MPs who once spoke nobly about being "the servants of the people" now complain to journalists that "if we don't get rid of Gordon we could be out of power for a generation". I'm sure that's what they are frightened of; but how embarrassing and how very tactless to admit it.
We see in this and similar remarks not a single reflection on what new policies Mr Brown should adopt to better the lot of the public, and thereby also improve the standing of the Government. On the part of the so-called "ultra-Blairites", this is perhaps not surprising. Having been an obstacle to Mr Blair's ideas on educational and welfare reform while he was Chancellor, Mr Brown is now pursuing exactly the same policies as Prime Minister.
So instead they – and others – criticise Mr Brown's presentational skills. They do it, of course, anonymously; for at the same time as they denigrate their boss to the parliamentary lobby correspondents, they also hope for some preferment from him. Only one Labour MP, Gordon Prentice, has had the integrity and self-respect to say this publicly, rather than whisper poison into a reporter's ear – yesterday he declared on BBC Radio that Brown must go, because "a Prime Minister must be able to communicate, persuade and enthuse. If not, the message is lost".
The Labour Member for Pendle is obviously right about Mr Brown's inability to "sell" Labour's message – whatever it is – to the public. This is also beyond irony, however. The Labour Party gets rid of Mr Blair partly out of the conviction that he is just a slick salesman; it continuously criticises David Cameron on exactly the same grounds – and yet it is having a collective nervous breakdown entirely because its current leader lacks the very skill it affects to despise.
Nevertheless, Mr Prentice's attack on Mr Brown's presentational skills is infinitely preferable, in its courage and directness, to the intimations of a leadership challenge endlessly attributed to such sources as "friends of Jack Straw" or even – if we can imagine such a political movement – "friends of Geoff Hoon". Another anonymous internal critic was reported in yesterday's FT as saying of a possible challenger: "In the end though it doesn't matter who it is. If we don't change leader we're going to lose badly, and whoever we choose will be better than David Cameron."
Better for the speaker of those words, certainly; but better for the nation as a whole? One might have identified a moral force behind such a belief at a time when there really was an ideological gulf between Labour and Conservative; but now there are no significant differences between the two main parties across such fundamental issues as welfare reform, taxation and energy.
As the Cambridge academic David Runciman has argued, British politics increasingly resemble those of the 18th century, when the battles for power were between rival narrow elites of no great ideological distinctiveness.
There are few battles more bitter than those that settle the success or failure of personal careers; but the British public could be forgiven for regarding the fight now taking place within the Labour Party as having nothing at all to do with their own lives and welfare. They will take their revenge, in the usual way.Reuse content