Mark Seddon: The rumours are swirling, the war drums beating - rebellion is in the air

'I have been approached by MPs who want to know what rules would govern a Labour leadership election'
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The Independent Online

Just before the director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, takes his pruning shears to hard-hitting political programmes such as On the Record, convinced as he is that audiences are turning off from politics, he should pay a visit to the House of Commons strangers bar. If he has time, he could wander along to the press gallery, or if he really feels like roughing it, pick up some lunch on a laminated tray in one of the innumerable cafeterias dotted around the Palace of Westminster. For Parliament and politics is becoming interesting again. A whiff of rebellion is in the air – and this time it isn't just coming from the usual suspects. Mr Dyke's viewers – of whatever social class – might just be interested.

Over 100 Labour MPs, including former ministers Glenda Jackson and Peter Kilfoyle, have signed an early day motion demanding restraint over Iraq. They have been joined by serial loyalists Oona King and Jon Trickett. During a visit to the Commons tearoom last week, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, was assailed by the uber-Blairista backbencher and MP for Stourbridge, Debra Shipley. She wasn't going to support any American backed venture in Iraq, she told him, and what's more "the army doesn't seem to want to either".

Whether Ms Shipley is privy to the mood of the top military brass is a moot point, and it may be said in Mr Straw's favour that he visits the Commons tea rooms, unlike the Prime Minister, who is one of the worst attendees in the House. But Tony Blair could do no worse than take the temperature of his own top brass – the Cabinet – who have precious little appetite for whatever the Pentagon might be cooking up for Iraq. Only yesterday, Clare Short said (to On The Record as it happens): "Blind military action doesn't deal with Iraq. To open up a military flank on Iraq would be very unwise." The three Bs – Blunkett, Brown and Beckett – are also reportedly sceptical, as is the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook. Labour MPs will confirm this, for a number of them have held snatched conversations in office corridors and lifts with ministers.

And perhaps most intriguingly of all, we have Mo Mowlam writing in the Sunday Mirror that she finds it harder and harder to defend what the Labour Government is doing and that "We have a prime minister who has thrown away the British constitution and seems to see himself as our president". Even Mr Blair should be able to hear that war drum.

That a sense of drift infects the Government post-Byers, post-Enron, post-Mittal, is beyond doubt. But, in normal circumstances, the professional crisis managers at Number 10 would have ensured that these temporary blips were swiftly ironed out. The economy is in good shape, the Opposition is nowhere, New Labour still rides high in the polls and evidence suggests that the Government is making an impact in one of the areas that most concerns voters – education.

But that drift, combined with a heady sense of revolt over Iraq and deep concerns about the direction of Mr Blair's public sector reforms have combined to make for a heady cocktail. John Monks – usually viewed as a force for calm and moderation – attacked the Prime Minister last week for his "bloody stupid" alliance with the Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar. This triple alliance of free marketers is now ranged against Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and France's Prime Minister Lionel Jospin – both concerned to maintain something of their European social and welfare model. For some years now, Mr Blair has been anxious to at best water down or at worst block European legislation that extends the rights of workers – but now the Blair-Berlusconi-Aznar alliance is formalised and the pretence peeled away, Labour's real loyalists – the unions – have had enough.

I have been approached over recent weeks by a number of MPs – mostly the usual suspects, it must be said – who have wanted to know what rules would govern a Labour leadership election. Ever since the immutable Margaret McDonagh informed one of my NEC colleagues apropos of some hideous internal stitch-up that "It is a rule, but it is not written down," I haven't had the heart to spend an evening curled up in front of the fire with the party's rulebook.

True, there will be no Sir Anthony Meyer-style "stalking horse": the rules, I have discovered, do not allow for one. And the talk may be premature. The vast bulk of the party wants a change of course, not a change of leader – especially if any new leader genuflects and then gets on with business, or rather big business, as usual.

But all roads lead to Gordon Brown. The unions must know that if anyone is able to square the circle between full employment and maintaining rights at work, it is the Chancellor. Mr Brown is at last seeing some benefits coming out of the enforced austerity of Labour's first years. Quietly redistributing towards the working poor, while presiding over near enough full employment, the Chancellor has also invested a great deal of energy in alleviating Third World debt. A Labour heart still beats heavily in Brown's chest, and many of his supporters will be hoping that a combination of Presbyterian morality and economic prudence would stay his hand from wasting money and lives in the coming Hundred Years War.

Ingratitude and studied incomprehension of his motives may have driven the Prime Minister to the London School of Economics last week, where, under a portrait of Sidney and Beatrice Webb busily preparing Clause Four of Labour's constitution, he once again set out his Third Way philosophy. This was a far more cogent exposition of where he stood than has been heard recently but the audience – mainly New Labour loyalists – failed to catch fire. The caravan has moved on, and Blair's broader audience in Labour and the unions has learned to separate rhetoric from reality.

Mr Blair is unlikely to change course. More likely he will tire and do something else. But another possibility, remote at the moment, is that one day the men in brown suits will, as a Downing Street insider once so patronisingly observed "waddle up to Number 10". Only this time they may bring whiskey and a revolver.

SeddonZQ1@aol.com

The writer is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party

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