John Rentoul: Step down, Gordon, and liberate Labour

The party is delivering, but it will only win votes if it persuades the Prime Minister to make way for Alan Johnson

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In case you missed the historic clash between Alan Johnson and Jeremy Paxman I've transcribed it here. The television presenter began: "Could I ask whether you feel a bit embarrassed about the blood that's on your hands?"

To which the response was: "You're not improving, are you? I thought you'd make a better start than that. It's a ridiculous question, you know it's a ridiculous question. I have no blood on my hands. I was not involved in the discussions that Gordon Brown's fellow Cabinet ministers had with him."

All right. It wasn't Johnson and Paxman; it was Bob Hawke and an Australian anchor called Richard Carleton on 3 February 1983. And the discussions in which Hawke denied involvement were between Bill Hayden, the leader of the Australian Labor Party until a few hours before, and his leading colleagues.

It was one of the most extraordinary days in Australian politics, which are so much earthier than ours. Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal prime minister, went to the Governor-General to ask for a general election. Hayden was a colourless leader of the opposition and Fraser wanted to capitalise on the Government's unexpected victory in a by-election. At the same time, though, Labor MPs were meeting in Brisbane. Most feared that they would lose under Hayden and thought that they stood a better chance with Hawke, a charismatic and – as Carleton found out – sharp-tongued new MP. By the time Fraser got back from the Governor-General's mansion, he found that he would be fighting the election not against Hayden but Hawke – who went on to win not just that election but the next three as well.

The Bob Hawke Scenario has for some time been the best guide to how the Labour Party in this country might seek to minimise the electoral disaster that is now just 12 or 13 months away. Some elements in the party thought about trying to get Brown out last summer, until a resolute fightback at the annual conference coincided with the global bank collapse and David Miliband, the favoured alternative, had his yellow moment.

The other problem faced by the plotters last year was that, if Labour changed its leader a second time, the demand for a general election would become overwhelming. That is why the Hawke example of leaving the change until as late as possible before an election is so persuasive. Indeed, it has nearly persuaded leading members of the Labour Party before.

Back in 1992, as Neil Kinnock squared up to John Major, some of John Smith's supporters thought that he should take over at the last minute. Patricia Hewitt, who worked in Kinnock's office, even said afterwards that such a switch "might well have won this election".

What saved Kinnock then was that the opinion polls – wrongly – suggested that Labour held a narrow lead over the Conservatives. That is not a stab-proof vest Gordon Brown can wear now. Mind you, the Prime Minister has other protections. The most effective is the absence of a personality on the Government side who is so strikingly charismatic and brave that he or she offers Labour MPs such an advantage in saving their seats as to risk a coup. For the time being, the Foreign Secretary does not offer a sufficient advantage. None of the even younger contenders, currently jostling for post-defeat leadership, seems ready either.

Jack Straw came top of the list last weekend in a poll that asked who should take over if Brown stepped down. The Justice Secretary was named by 23 per cent. I suspect that this measures name recognition as much as anything else, and my preference is still for Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary. He is not an obvious prime minister, even to himself. As he pointed out, he could not even get the Labour Party to vote for him as deputy leader. But he has a biography to die for, up against the Bullingdon boys: the orphan brought up by his sister in a council house; the postman who once delivered to Dorneywood. And he has the affability, wit and political good sense to come across as the effective chairman of a collegiate government.

If another change of prime minister sounds like a desperate measure, last week's Budget should have been the moment when it became clear that these are desperate times. There is an air of unreality about the sense of impending doom: most people are not unemployed and public spending continues to accelerate until it hits the buffers in a year's time. Spending on the NHS this year will be 8 per cent higher in cash terms than last. And yet, after the election begins the Reckoning, a long period of more serious retrenchment than ever before in the history of British public finances.

There is no doubt that Labour will be blamed in advance for this state of affairs. The Labour Party as a whole has taken its reputation for economic competence and put it in the shredder. Dropping Brown will not allow it to tape it back together. But it would help. The Prime Minister is the principal architect of the economic monument that has just collapsed. Johnson as prime minister would be able to say, "Yes, we screwed up," in the easy, conversational and believable way that Barack Obama apologised for not checking one of his cabinet appointments well enough.

Johnson would not be able to win the election for Labour, but he could make a difference. If he could save the party 50 seats, that could make the difference between a solid Conservative majority and a hung parliament. That is the kind of change that Labour MPs could believe in.

The mechanics are secondary. The simplest way would be for Brown to realise that he was leading his party to certain defeat and to stand down voluntarily. Under Labour rules, the Cabinet then chooses one of its number as prime minister until a leadership election can be arranged.

I don't know if ministers have the fight left to put pressure on Brown to make it happen. But I know that they should. And not just because I want to hear Alan Johnson say to Jeremy Paxman, "You are a damned impertinence," as Bob Hawke said to Richard Carleton 26 years ago: "You can sit there with your silly quizzical face..."

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