Paul Richards: Labour beware... Brown's men will now be bent on revenge

His usual tactic is to besmirch the reputation of his critics in the party
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The Independent Online

This evening the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will hold its weekly meeting, just as it has for more than a century.

Labour MPs and peers will cram into Committee Room 14 in the House of Commons. Members of the Cabinet sit at the front of the room on a raised platform. Perpendicular to them are rows of choir stalls where MPs will sit. At the back it is standing room only, like the cheap tickets in a Shakespearean theatre.

Labour staffers and special advisers have their own little pen, separated from the politicians by wooden rails. Lining the Committee corridor are the lobby journalists, clustering like the jineteras outside a Cuban hotel, hoping to do business with an indiscrete passing MP.

If Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon had met with support instead of humiliation last Wednesday, tonight Labour MPs would be secretly casting their votes for or against Gordon Brown. A drama worthy of Aeschylus would be played out.

Instead, Labour MPs will be queuing up to administer a Taliban-style beating to Hewitt and Hoon. Labour MPs are furious with the pair. The mood is made more poisonous by the impending publication of Labour's former general secretary Peter Watt's memoirs, which paint a picture of chaos and dithering at Downing Street.

After the last failed coup, in June 2009, Tony Lloyd MP (who chairs the meeting) allowed the rebels to have their say at the start, as soon as Gordon Brown had finished his 15-minute plea for unity. Tom Harris, Fiona McTaggart, Meg Munn and Charles Clarke were given free rein. But then the heavy guns opened up: Blunkett, Beckett and Lord Kinnock pounding the rebellion to pieces.

The same tactic will probably be deployed this evening. Tables will be banged in support of loyalists. Hoon and Hewitt, if they are courageous enough to turn up (and I think they are), will be ritually eviscerated by their peers. Brown's spin doctors will brief the journalists outside that the PLP is united behind the Prime Minister, loyalist MPs will tweet and blog from the meeting, and the third attempt to defenestrate Gordon Brown will be over.

The historical tactics used by the people around Brown is to besmirch the reputations and characters of opponents within the Labour Party. Scores of current and former ministers have been on the wrong end of an unattributable kicking in the press. Early last Wednesday afternoon, journalists were being reminded that Hewitt was leaving parliament anyway and had business consultancies (a crime akin to incest in some Labour MPs' eyes). Hoon was depicted as a bitter man, thwarted in his ambition to be a Eurocrat. They were denounced as "Blairites" – the new catch-all term for traitors in the No 10 lexicon, like "Trotskyite" in the Soviet Union.

That seemed mild compared to the nastiness to come. Prescott called them "bitter". Geraldine Smith MP called them "cowards and traitors". A string of poisonous emails was sent from Labour MPs. Christine McCafferty said, "I am appalled by your egocentric agenda and lack of judgement."

Jimmy Hood said it was "an act of treachery beyond comprehension". Joan Walley accused them of "arrogance". Gwynn Prosser thought their act "wholly wrong, disloyal, damaging to the party and bordering on treachery". John Heppell wrote: "There will be no appetite for your proposed distraction and it will disappear as quickly as your credibility." Diane Abbott told them they must have taken leave of their senses.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that people who use the word "comrade" are capable of such unpleasantness towards other Labour MPs, even ones whom they consider to have committed a heinous act of disloyalty. Behind those smiling faces on leaflets and websites are tough characters, skilled in bare-knuckle Labour politics. No one got to be a Labour MP by being nice.

Personal attacks on Hewitt and Hoon's motives and judgement, words such as "cowards" and "traitors", and briefings to the press may satisfy the short-term desire for retribution. There are button men around Brown who are adept at that sort of thing. But a fresh round of recriminations drags everyone down. Voters don't follow the Kremlinology; they just see the division, and are disgusted. Gordon Brown should heed the advice of another parliamentarian, Sir Francis Bacon: "In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior."

As Labour MPs congregate this evening in Committee Room 14, I hope they will behave with decency and respect. They claim to be the People's Party. We don't need another Nasty Party.

Paul Richards writes a weekly column for Progress and was a special adviser to Patricia Hewitt