John Rentoul: Gordon Brown should watch his back

The plotters of the September coup to oust Tony Blair now have their sights set on their new Prime Minister
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The Independent Online

"Disloyal, discourteous and wrong." That was about as angry as Tony Blair ever got. The man so described was Tom Watson, a junior defence minister in the Government and one of the organisers of the September coup in 2006 that forced Blair to say he would be gone within a year.

Watson was part of a plot by Gordon Brown to drive Blair from office. Brown managed to avoid becoming known as an assassin, just as Blair managed to make it look as if he was "leaving at a time of his own choosing". But it was a coup; Brown was the author of it and Watson one of the principal plotters.

They conferred beforehand on the memorable occasion of Watson's making a detour from his West Bromwich constituency to Fife, Scotland, to deliver a Postman Pat video to Brown's new baby, Fraser. And Brown could have stopped the plot. He could have quashed the round robin calling on Blair to go, and he could have prevented the synchronised resignations of Watson and six parliamentary private secretaries.

When Brown became Prime Minister, nine months later, several of the participants in the coup were rewarded, although none of them too conspicuously. Watson is now a government whip, as are Wayne David and Mark Tami, two of his fellow resigners. Iain Wright, who also resigned as a PPS but did not sign the round robin, is a junior minister in Yvette Cooper's Department of Communities and Local Government. And Kevin Brennan, who withdrew his name from the round robin before it was published, is a junior minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families headed by Ed Balls, Cooper's husband and Brown's right-hand person.

Are the plotters happy now? I am told that they are not; that many of them share the sense of disappointment with Brown expressed in parts of the press. Watson himself must be excluded from this. When I spoke to him yesterday, he said that he was "Gordon's strongest supporter" and firmly believes that the Prime Minister can and will turn things round.

Yet I have been told that some of the signatories of the round robin are so worried about Brown's prospects that they are bringing forward their plans to organise a leadership campaign for Ed Balls. This is extraordinary. It is not, of course, surprising that they see Balls as Brown's eventual successor. That has been a privately whispered assumption of many of Brown's supporters for some time. For some of Brown's more factional supporters, it is quite natural that, as soon as they have finished with the Blair-Brown struggle, they look ahead to the next internal party contest and to guess that it will be between Balls, Secretary of State for Schools, and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary.

What has changed, I am told, is that some of the September 2006 plotters have become so frustrated with Brown that they think the Labour Party may have to get a new leader another one before the next election. One of them said recently: "Gordon is not the change candidate." Another was overheard saying that Brown's people at No 10 "haven't got a clue".

It all sounds most improbable. Balls has been a cabinet minister for just six months, and an MP for only two and a half years. Despite a formidable intellect, he has not yet developed a comfortable television manner. But, as was argued in this column last week, if things continue getting worse for Brown, it is possible that the party might turn to David Miliband. That sounds only slightly less improbable, yet it is an indicator of the trouble that Brown is in that MPs are already talking about it. And if the Blairite tendency are prepared to talk up the Foreign Secretary the patterns of recent Labour history ensure an equal and opposite reaction from the Brownites.

One MP, an acid-tongued critic of the September coup, says: "It's like having an affair: when you've done it once, you'll do it again" and suggests that some of the plotters are addicted to organising for the sake of it.

It has become fashionable to assume that the House of Commons does not matter much, and that the Parliamentary Labour Party is a pliable tool of the party leader. This is quite untrue: Blair was in effect brought down by a revolt of Labour MPs. But most of the mechanisms by which these things are organised and expressed within the party are hidden from public view.

Other parts of the hidden wiring of the Parliamentary Labour Party were exposed by the deputy leadership election, which Harriet Harman won, thanks in part to discreet support from Gordon Brown. It was a close-run thing. Not just because Harman beat Alan Johnson, now Health Secretary, by only 0.87 per cent on the final count. If five MPs or MEPs had voted differently, she would have lost; and six known Brownites voted for her.

It was close in another sense: because Jon Cruddas, the left-wing insurgent candidate, won the most first preferences and could have come through if the votes had fallen differently, or if he had tempered his oppositionalism by perhaps two degrees during the campaign.

Cruddas remains one of the key players in Labour's future. Once one of Blair's loyal organisers, responsible for whipping the union votes at conferences that produced a series of clear runs for the previous leader, he has turned into an anti-capitalist idealist.

Last week he wrote an article in the New Statesman that attacked Brown for caving in to the Conservatives by cutting inheritance tax and demanded a party general secretary independent of the leader to get clear of the "toxic" party funding issue.

Cruddas has kept his distance from Brown, refusing a junior ministerial post that was offered because it was "too nebulous". His left-wing bloc, which is wider than the old Bennite left, could be the deciding factor in a future leadership contest. And Tom Watson was one of the MPs who nominated Cruddas for the deputy leadership.

This is subterranean politics, the geological formations that underlie the visible stuff. I do not know how much Balls knows about what some of his putative supporters are up to. And Watson says there is "no truth whatsoever" in any suggestion that he is involved in a Balls leadership campaign.

The fact that others of the September plotters do seem to be talking about it, though, is important simply for what it says about the mood of the parliamentary party.

If Gordon Brown fails to get out of the trough that he is in, the obvious conclusion would be that Labour could not avert election defeat by changing its leader a second time. Certainly such untested young candidates as Miliband and Balls are not the obvious answer. Not yet; but I suspect things may look very different a year from now.