Michael Brown: Labour should prepare for a peasants' revolt

There are angry Labour councillors who are not only out of power but out of pocket
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair will have already heavily discounted yesterday's election results long before a single vote was cast. I suspect that the impact on the Prime Minister may be the exact opposite to what commentators are expecting and that there will be a determination to carry on as normal. Something enters the Downing Street waters after a PM has been in office for any length of time, and I suspect that it will be the bunker mentality that drives the nature of decision-making in the weeks ahead.

For those expecting a dramatic reshuffle, I suspect that we will once again be subjected to the usual botched job that has been the hallmark of most of Mr Blair's personnel changes. The Prime Minister may think that no one was listening to him when they went to the polls yesterday, but it is also clear that he is in no mood to listen to voters - still less to his Cabinet or Labour backbenchers.

If anything the local election results are as likely to spur Mr Blair on to dig in for the long term, and the attitude of Tessa Jowell, on the campaign trail with the Prime Minister on Wednesday, gave a fair indication that, for him, his personal legacy matters more than the future electoral prospects of the Labour Party.

Mr Blair's attitude will be similar to that of both his prime ministerial predecessors. Never once did I see Margaret Thatcher or even John Major take the slightest notice of the message the voters were trying to send them when particularly bad local election results occurred. In 1990, when similar losses for the Government occurred in London, more effort - quite successfully - was expended by the then party chairman, Kenneth Baker, in convincing all and sundry that because the Tories had won Westminster and Wandsworth (having lost virtually every other council) the message of the voters could be ignored by Margaret Thatcher.

So successful was the internal spin operation that for a few months the Tory party was in denial about the long-term prognosis for the Prime Minister's future. It took the by-election defeat in Eastbourne, coupled with the putsch instigated by Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, before the rest of the party woke up to the inevitability of Thatcher's demise.

I suspect, however, that on this occasion the Labour spin machine - in so far as it still exists - will be tested to the limit as it tries to hold the Labour Party together. For there is a crucial difference between Mrs Thatcher's woes and those of Mr Blair. Thatcher may have lost the confidence of her Cabinet and her MPs, but she still retained the overwhelming support of party activists in the country. These activists were the restraining influence on MPs who, even when they finally voted to bring her down, were scared of the reaction they were likely to get in their constituencies.

Today, there is utter hatred among Labour Party activists for the Prime Minister and New Labour. Any Labour MP who confronts their defeated councillors with a defence of Tony Blair's continuation in Downing Street will find themselves facing local de-selection. Incumbent councillors collect between £5,000 and £10,000 in attendance allowance and expenses. In the case of controlling party leaders, local council cabinet members and chairmen of council committees it is almost possible to make a living out of local politics.

Yesterday's losses mean that there are angry Labour councillors who are not only out of power but also out of pocket. They can be expected to turn their fire on local Labour MPs unless those MPs realise that they will need to take the future of Tony Blair's leadership into their own hands.

Monday's likely reshuffle looks like leaving Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and Ruth Kelly in place. John Prescott will still remain Deputy Labour leader and such ministerial changes elsewhere will be confined to lower ranks. But after this reshuffle, Mr Blair will have exhausted his remaining patronage. No command nor threat from the Labour Chief Whip will have the slightest effect on a single Labour backbench MP.

The stage is now set for the only route left for Labour MPs if they believe that their chances of re-election are being harmed by Mr Blair's continuing presence. If nothing of substance changes in the Cabinet reshuffle, expect a serious peasants' revolt on a scale last witnessed on the Tory backbenches in 1990. There may be technically no easy mechanism in the Labour Party constitution to oust an incumbent Labour leader in the way Tory rules permitted. But this Prime Minister, like all his predecessors, can only govern with the support of a majority in Parliament. I predict that Labour MPs will begin the process of doing to Mr Blair what we Tories did to Mrs Thatcher.