Donald Macintyre: Will they, won't they launch a coup?

You can't find a Labour figure who doesn't believe their chances better without Brown

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It's seven years since the late Roy Jenkins told me that he thought Gordon Brown should be content with having been a "powerful Chancellor" rather than strive to be a "tail end Charlie" Prime Minister. Characteristically he reeled off a list of examples of politicians – Rosebery after Gladstone; Chamberlain after Baldwin; Eden after Churchill; Alec Home after Macmillan; Callaghan after Wilson; Major after Thatcher – to argue "there is no slot less rewarding than that of becoming PM at the end of a long period of government by your own party."

It's difficult, revisiting Britain briefly at the turn of an election year, not to conclude that the wise old politician was right. Charles Clarke, the biggest Labour beast outside the Cabinet, charges that "a consipiracy of silence" among former collegues is keeping the leader in place even though they know his removal is necessary to avoid a "smashing defeat" for Labour.

The astute pollster-commentator Peter Kellner warns New Statesman readers to face the harsh reality that all recent polls bar two have shown the Tories in a position to win an overall majority. And there are even – yet again – rumblings of a possible stalking horse seeking to garner backbench support if the Cabinet does not move against the Prime Minister in the next fortnight. Whatever else, this can't be much fun for Mr Brown.

Not all of this is obvious. Labour has not suffered the kind of spectacular holed-below-the-waterline event like the collapse of industrial relations policy or the devaluation which hit the first Wilson government and those of Edward Heath or John Major. Indeed, Mr Brown won international credit for his handling of the economic crisis, if not for his serial mismanagement of lesser issues. And while the politicial assassination of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 may seem a tempting precedent, Mr Brown, for all his faults, is not pursuing a deranged policy like the poll tax. Nor is he to blame for the fact the Tories are finally led by a man to whom young, apolitical, middle-class voters can relate largely becase, in contrast to his three predecessors, he appears socially liberal on gays and women.

Yet it is hard to find a senior Labour figure who does not privately believe that the party would have a significantly better chance if Mr Brown stepped down. Leaving aside questions of style and elector fatigue, one argument is that a new leader could openly acknowledge the mistakes as well as real successes of a party which Mr Brown has helped to dominate for 15 years – and make a credible case for repairing the former precisely because he – or she – is not so implicated in having made them in the first place.

All that is pretty common ground. The question is whether it could yet happen. The dissidents believe it is the political and moral duty of Mr Brown's most senior Cabinet colleagues to save the party from electoral disaster by refusing to serve under him. And that a short subsequent 21-day leadership contest, its bloodletting restrained by the imminence of a general election, could actually help rather than hinder the party's standing.

It might even resolve the still rumbling argument over how explicit to be about the inevitable cuts in public expenditure – outside the protected areas of hospitals and schools – needed to help tackle the biggest deficit in British economic history. Despite the widespread doubts about the Brown-Balls preoccupation with the investment versus cuts "dividing line" with the Tories, the Prime Minister and his Schools secretary are not completely alone in thinking that, since the cuts will not be relevant until 2011, there is no need to be specific now.

The contrary view is that it would actually enhance Labour's fiscal credibility to commit itself, say, to cutting Trident or even raising university tuition fees, at the same time as drawing the Tories on to Labour grounds by forcing them to idenifty their own plans for cuts. Certainly the Darling-Mandelson axis was not strong enough to overcome the Balls-Brown resistance to being specific on cuts before the pre-Budget report. There is no equivalent, so the argument goes, to the late Seventies alliance between Chancellor Healey and Prime Minister Callaghan which confronted voters with the facts of economic life, and, if it had not been for the union-fomented Winter of Discontent, might have beaten off the Thatcher challenge in 1979.

There are counter-arguments to all this. Whatever his deepest views on Labour's chances – and even if some think that, in the event of a wholesale Cabinet revolt, he might not "strive officiously to keep alive" his friend and leader – Peter Mandelson remains an unlikely regicide, on grounds of personal loyalty and bond. Other ministers who would ideally prefer a David Miliband premiership think the moment for enacting the Clarke scenario was not now but last year when James Purnell led the way, the catastrophic European election results provided a legitimate and immediate casus belli against Mr Brown, and Mr Miliband refused to strike

Finally, there are real fears in the Cabinet that such a revolt could misfire, with Mr Brown replacing the rebels and carrying on at the head of a broken party; and that, even if he did not, the story of the political murder would dominate the agenda until the election.

There remains one other possibility: that Mr Brown will be persuaded to step down and anoint a successor. Few think this likely. Of Lord Jenkins's "tail end" examples only Neville Chamberalin stood down without fighting an election. For Mr Brown, who has a deeper sense of politicial history than his predecessor, that is not a happy precedent.

Home thoughts from abroad risk lurching between the trite and untrue. But it does look as if the next fortnight will be critical. It appears that Tory support is wide but shallow and that another Labour leader could reduce it. But if the Prime Minister survives January – and past experience suggests he will – then Labour will probably have to take its chances with Mr Brown. The polls suggest that at the very best that could mean Labour forming the biggest single party in a hung Parliament.

It is at least as likely that the Tories will have an overall majority or that as the biggest single party they can govern as a minority until fighting a second election. If so, Labour, twice toppled from office in the last 40 years, will have to hope that the precedent is 1970, when it came back after four years, and not 1979, when it took 18.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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