Matthew Norman: Slithering down to the starting gate

The first lesson of politics is the impossibility of exaggerating the politician's capacity for self-delusion
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A week in politics, eh? Seven days ago, with a garrulous Charlie Clarke taking his claret by way of a funnel, and with a weekend of hideous Judas headlines to come, things looked wobbly for Gordon Brown. Suddenly Gordon had a scrap on his hands, we were assured, and one he was far from guaranteed to win.

Today, it is as you were. A chat with Andrew Marr punctuated by the "I'm thinking of ma wee boy" death-rictus grin, followed by the epiphany that he adores Tony Blair after all, may have helped restore the status quo. But the main reason the bookies have restored him to prohibitive favouritism is cold psephological fact. With a huge majority of that third of the electoral college votes cast by the trade unions safely trousered, he is unbeatable, barring some unimaginable humiliation, such as the emergence of CCTV footage showing him sneaking out of the Bank of England vault with the ingot that has comprised our entire gold reserve since he sold the rest for about a third of its current value.

Internecine warfare abhors a vacuum, however, and by way of a classic displacement activity the opening shots in a potentially vicious battle for the deputy leadership followed the fragile Blair-Brown ceasefire as night follows day.

Ordinarily, one might wonder what could be so attractive about being deputy to Gordon, a man unable to count up to number two in any context in which he is number one. If Labour's deputy leader is, as John Prescott has worked so tirelessly to illustrate, a thoroughly honorific title, then deputy prime ministers (with one or two historical exceptions) have had little real power either.

At this moment, however, it is more tempting. Potential contenders will be calculating the odds on Labour losing the next election or winning it without a working majority, in either of which cases the post might make the perfect launch pad for a crack at succeeding Gordon should he feel obliged to go.

All of this may seem unlikely. You may look at the possible candidates and wonder which, if any, has the look of the next Labour leader, let alone Prime Minister, but one. This is not the point. The first lesson of political psychology is the impossibility of exaggerating the politician's capacity for self-delusion.

It doesn't matter how weak, loathed, distrusted, ill-suited to the pressure, obscure, risible or plain thick they may be. Almost all MPs dream, and on some level actually believe, that if the cards fall right they will reach the pinnacle of their trade. If you don't believe me, consider this. In November 1998, a few weeks before he was first sacked, a comment article in The Times, self-evidently written with its subject's assistance, argued that Peter Mandelson was being groomed to succeed Tony Blair.

So while the deputy leadership runners trot down to the starting stalls, let us jettison any thought of the race being about doctrinal issues or reshaping the Labour Party's future, for all that such things will play their part, and think of it purely in terms of personal ambition.

The probable front runner is Peter Hain, as slithery a performer as you could wish to meet. Mr Hain's trick for ages has been to play the radical socialist firebrand in speeches and interviews, while in Cabinet supporting policies that would have made his heroic youthful self retch. He was, for example, a fervent public defender of the sanctions against Iraq that cost the lives of an estimated 500,000 children, and when the invasion began he couldn't quite bring himself to resign along with his affiliate Robin Cook.

Under the doctrine of collective responsibility, Mr Hain is now an advocate of legislation that would have rendered him guilty, in his ANC-supporting 1970s manifestation, of glorifying terrorism. Cruelly denied such progressive laws back then, his sole conviction was for criminal conspiracy (over direct action to prevent a rugby tour), and maybe there is something enticing about the prospect of a deputy PM with a criminal record.

Unofficially the "I'll do whatever Gordon tells me, cross my heart and hope to die if I don't" candidate, Mr Hain officially styles himself the man to restore "the shattered progressive consensus". Yet whatever that may mean (answers on the traditional postcard, please), it must be doubted that a permatanned peacock with a tangerine face to make Judith Chalmers look albino could have the credibility to win. We may yet witness the painful irony of the one-time arch foe of apartheid being barred because of his colour.

If the future is not to be orange, it may belong to the Westminster pin-up du jour, Alan Johnson. Mr Hain is so scared of him that he's started attacking him even before Postman Al has decided whether to run for deputy, or whether he'd land up with a mightier barony by losing with honours to Gordon in the main event.

Mr Hain says it was "very disloyal" of Mr Johnson to hint at his ambitions when the incumbent Mr Prescott was on the rack over his cowboy jaunt to Colorado, accusing him of "trying to grab his job". On hearing Mr Hain on disloyalty, projection is the term that comes to mind, but we'll let that pass. Mr Johnson has charm, humour and the appearance of normality, and in this field that really should be enough.

Harriet Harman declared her interest before anyone else, on the seemingly sexist ground that the job belongs by right to a woman. An ardent Brownite, despite being disdainfully hung out to dry by him long ago over cutting benefits to single mothers, she is taking soundings from her constituency party to determine whether they believe she should run. Somehow, one suspects, they will believe just that.

Cast to type in the feeble, blethering part of Michael Ancram, one-time perennial Tory "unity candidate", is Jack Straw, and in the light of Sir Christopher's Washington memoirs, "a pygmy politician for a pygmy post" might be the campaign slogan for him.

Lastly, for now at least, there is Hilary Benn, a clever, decent man with all his blessed father's good nature, if a wilfully unfilial Blairite world view, whose chief selling point seems to be studied inoffensiveness - not such a bad quality in one from the same doctrinal camp as Blunkett and Milburn.

Which of the above will line up for what will, like the premiership, be a marathon, not a sprint, and who will join them remains uncertain, but one thing is clear. Both as proxies for their champions in Numbers 10 and 11, and above all as power-hungry show ponies in their own right, it behoves them to plug the gap left by the anticipated ease of Gordon's accession, and to sate a nation's sharpened appetite for political malevolence cloaked in the well worn garments of alleged public spiritedness. With Mr Hain the one confirmed runner, I suspect we can rely on that.

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