How characteristic of Gordon Brown to make his departure a potential game-changer. One of his senior aides told me at the weekend that in every crisis "Gordon always plays an ace at some point". He had witnessed a thousand traumatic crises over the years.
Yesterday Brown played an ace in the form of his own resignation. He has been at the top of British politics since 1992, when he became Labour's shadow Chancellor. Written off by internal and external opponents on a regular basis ever since, Brown had become perversely the most underestimated figure on the national stage. On Thursday night, before the votes were declared, every person I spoke to assumed Brown would be gone the following day. He is still there and quite possibly changing the political landscape once more, or more precisely giving the chance for others to do so.
Over recent days several senior figures close to Nick Clegg told me that the media was getting ahead of itself in assuming there would be a deal with the Conservatives. Of course such a deal is what most of the media wanted, moving on effortlessly from telling us all that David Cameron would win an overall majority, and attacking Clegg as a Nazi, to anticipating eagerly a Lib/Con arrangement. But some in Clegg's inner circle stressed that he had always said that he would open talks with the party that secured most votes or seats. That was what he was doing. He was also open to discussions with Labour. There was, though, one overwhelming obstacle to a deal: Gordon Brown. That obstacle has been removed.
There are of course other obstacles that surface immediately. Brown announced his resignation, but he is not going yet. He plans to be around until the Labour conference at the end of September. This is a minor obstacle. The Brown-haters will scream, but Brown could calmly preside over the transition, all personal ambition spent. His calls on the economic crisis have been largely vindicated. He can use his experience for a few more months to stabilise matters, a more attractive prospect to many than George Osborne's emergency Budget. Given that the Lib Dems agree with Brown about when the deficit reduction should begin – next year, not this summer – there is little immediate contention. Brown will soon be taking his bow. The fact that he is around for a bit longer should not be a deal breaker.
More problematic, and no doubt a significant calculation for the Lib Dems, is that they are being asked in one specific way to make a leap into the unknown. They know Brown will be gone, but they do not know who his successor will be. In addition, the parliamentary arithmetic is still the same as it was before Brown's announcement. Labour and the Lib Dems do not quite have an overall majority. This has bothered Clegg and the hugely influential Paddy Ashdown from early Friday morning. A further problem is that some Cabinet ministers are uneasy about electoral reform, and about forming a relationship with the Lib Dems. I spoke to several who thought Labour would be better off for now in opposition.
As far as the Lib Dems are concerned, these should be minor considerations compared with the risks of going further along the alternative path: a deal with a Conservative Party opposed to electoral reform, one that wants to cut the deficit this summer, which has an army of MPs who do not believe climate change is a serious issue, and which plans to renegotiate Britain's membership of the EU with the support of what Clegg has called a "bunch of nutters" in the European parliament.
There is no easy route at the top of politics. The likes of Brown have faced agonising dilemmas most days of the week since 1992. As for Labour MPs and ministers who prefer the purity of Opposition, they should read the diaries of Labour Cabinet ministers in 1979 who looked forward to a brief period out of power as the party got its act together. They were out for 18 years.
The Lib Dems should not find the dilemma especially agonising any longer. Speak to David Steel, Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, Clegg's predecessors. They all describe themselves as being on the left of centre. When I was chairing meetings in marginal seats for The Independent during the election campaign, the candidates for the Lib Dems all said they were on the left of centre, miles away from the Conservative Party. The Lib Dems have been waiting a hundred years, or perhaps a thousand, to be in a position where one of the two other parties backed electoral reform in a hung parliament. They have got one and conveniently for them it is the other party on the centre-left. Now that Brown has made his move, for all the problems, they must surely take the chance to change the political landscape, rather than prop up a largely unreformed Conservative Party.
For Brown, his extraordinary career is almost over. If Clegg does a deal with Cameron it will be over this week. Alternatively, if Clegg explores more fertile terrain he will be around for a few more months, like Blair announcing his resignation and then returning to work in No 10. More recently his flaws have been on display and been highlighted by a cruelly hostile media.
There is more to him than current orthodoxy allows. No one could have survived so long at the top without having epic strengths along with famously reported weaknesses. Most Labour Chancellors do not have especially long tenures. Most leaders-in-waiting never become leader. Brown was a Chancellor for more than a decade and acquired the crown. Now he might have instigated a new progressive alliance and kept the Tories out of power for much longer.
Nothing is inevitable. Cameron still has most seats, and the large section of the media that is on his side that will erupt with anger if their man fails to get there. Clegg and Ashdown might stick to their course and decide that more stable government is only possible with the Conservatives. Ashdown seemed determined in a BBC interview on Sunday that an arrangement with the Conservatives was the only feasible option. Blair vetoed Ashdown's project because Labour was too successful. Ashdown contemplates vetoing his own project because Labour is not successful enough. When does he envisage the ideal circumstances arising?
In response to Labour the Tories have offered a referendum on the Alternative Vote. Cameron and Osborne have shown they will say and do almost anything to win power. In advance of the election they changed their economic policies several times. Now they promise a referendum on electoral reform even though they oppose such a change. Tory MPs fume privately at their leadership's ineffective flexibility.
It is possible still that the Lib Dems will move in the contortionists' direction, in which case Labour would emerge as the only progressive alternative in Britain to the Conservatives, not a bad starting point for its new leader. That is the only certainty after a day of astonishing drama. Labour will have a new leader soon. Will he or she be Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition? Yesterday was one of the most dramatic at Westminster for many years. The next few days will be at least as highly charged.Reuse content