John Rentoul: Brown will be ditched. But when?

Labour does not need to lose another by-election to know that it is all over for this Prime Minister

Related Topics

It feels like it has all fizzled out. All the end-of-term excitement at Westminster about Gordon Brown's uncertain hold on No 10 seems to have subsided. Was it all just the silliness induced by the imminence of the holidays? Just as, at school, the older pupils play practical jokes and teachers break the routine with a bit of fun. You can tell what sort of school I went to: for our maths teacher this consisted of doing a whole lesson in base six; most teachers nowadays just put on a video.

At the end of term, anything seems possible. The head prefect, Miliband Major, was allowed to hold his own assembly and pretend to be the headmaster, and the pupils all went off for the summer full of the possibilities that the new term holds. I had already left London, but I was told that the atmosphere at the Foreign Secretary's news conference with a bemused Italian foreign minister, on the day that David Miliband published his "leadership bid" article, was headily expectant.

Labour had just lost a Scottish by-election to the SNP by the sort of swing that spelt electoral meltdown. But MPs were already heading out of the school gates. Most Cabinet ministers, among whom the plots that matter will be hatched, were only too keen to get away, leaving only Harriet Harman and Alistair Darling arguing over who was in charge of the shop while the boss was away – and Miliband, advertising his availability.

Now the new political term is about to begin, and the anything-could-happen mood seems a distant memory. The headmaster is back in his study, pondering a lesson plan entitled, "Barack Obama and the vacuity of 'change' as a slogan." The political news is being driven by the vote-losing tendency of the Labour Party, agitating for a windfall tax on the energy companies instead of looking on high oil prices as an opportunity to promote green objectives.

And, for Labour MPs, the opinion polls are still dire. Some of them, possibly in a state of shock after Glasgow East, went on holiday thinking that the 20-point Conservative leads were not real and would return to figures that did not look quite so life-threatening. But no, the average Tory lead during August increased slightly.

The only thing that really matters is whether Labour MPs think that ditching Gordon Brown for a new leader is likely to make matters better or worse. At the moment, they may think that they do not have to decide, but it is not an assessment that they can put off for ever. And it is not an assessment that will be made in Brown's favour. The Labour Party does not need to wait for further evidence that something fundamental is broken about its leader's electoral appeal. The opinion poll that found that 42 per cent feel sorry for the Prime Minister; the jokes about Team GB slipping from third to fourth in the medals table the moment he arrived in Beijing; the fact that Boris Johnson – "ping pong is coming home" – thoroughly upstaged him there. Labour does not need to lose another by-election in Scotland to know that it is all over for Brown.

I remember a long time ago, when the Labour Party was hauling itself back from the wilderness of opposition with the help of groups that described themselves as "soft left". At one meeting, Paul Thompson, editor of a magazine called Renewal, was taking questions from the audience but ignoring an attractive young woman at the front who had her hand up all the time. Eventually, when someone else in the audience protested, he said: "I'm not taking questions from the Revolutionary Communist Party. We may be the soft left, but we're not that soft."

The same applies now. The Labour Party may be the nice party, but it is not that nice. David Miliband may not be the compellingly popular alternative – if he were, I do not doubt that he would be prime minister already. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary's belligerent warnings about Russian "aggression", repeated in the Ukraine yesterday, are possibly ill-judged in policy terms, but they keep him on the media stage and make him sound tough.

The revolt against Brown was never going to be a continuous build-up. These things tend not to be. With Blair, the conditions were set, first by the Iraq war and then by his refusal to condemn the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in 2006. But it was not until a totally unrepentant interview in The Times seven weeks later – after the summer holidays – that Labour MPs went into what Nye Bevan might have called an emotional spasm. In less than a week, Blair had been forced to hand in his notice.

The crucial fact, on which Labour MPs have pondered by the pool side, is that there is no hurry to get rid of Brown yet. They know that a new leader would have to promise to go to the country quickly. A new leader really would have no personal mandate (unlike Brown: anyone who voted Labour in 2005 knew he was likely to be prime minister – some may have voted Labour for that very reason). I think that Labour MPs are wrong to fear an early election. The longer they leave changing their leader, the weaker their party becomes – down to 176,891 members, it was quietly reported over the summer – as Cameron grows stronger. But MPs have salaries and pensions to think about: no wonder they are cautious.

So, it may look as if the mutiny has fizzled out. But, as the last possible date for an election – 2 June 2010 – starts to be measured in months rather than years, they also have personal interests at stake in doing anything that might possibly give Labour a better chance than it faces under Gordon Brown. As one former Cabinet minister told me before the summer, "The one fixed point of certainty is that we are going down if GB stays. To get rid of him is a risk. It is a very big thing, but it gives us a chance." It may not do any good but, at some point, Labour MPs will try to save their skins.

The writer is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales & Marketing Assistant

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This UK based B2C and B2B multi...

Recruitment Genius: New Business Sales Executive - Opportunities Across The UK

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Join a fast growing, UK based I...

Recruitment Genius: Events Consultant

£24000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A position has arisen for an ex...

Recruitment Genius: Injection Moulding Supervisor

£20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Busy moulding company requires ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If teenagers were keen to vote, it could transform Britain

Peter Kellner
Crocuses bloom at The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew  

From carpets of crocuses to cuckoos on the move, spring is truly springing

Michael McCarthy
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003