Steve Richards: Disaster falls but Brown is still safe

There is no energy for insurrection. Some MPs don’t seem to mind if they lose
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The Independent Online

The political year ends like the last one – with a colossal defeat for Labour in a by-election. Twelve months ago, voters in Glasgow gave Gordon Brown the thumbs down in a by-election won by the SNP. Yesterday, the Conservatives gained Norwich with another spectacular swing. Politics is starting to repeat itself. Labour MPs head for their holidays for the second year running with a sense of doom. Some are in despair about their leader. Conservatives look to the autumn and beyond daring to hope they are on course for victory at a general election.

A year ago, Labour's defeat in Glasgow was the backdrop for the first attempted coup against Brown. A few days after that by-election, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, wrote his famously explosive article in which he reflected on Labour's future without referring once to his leader. In September, cabinet ministers contemplated making a move against Brown and a few Labour MPs flexed their muscles in public. Miliband started an embryonic campaign in which he appeared in more magazine profiles than Jade Goody. As we all know, nothing happened. Similarly, the second attempted coup went nowhere in the tumultuous days before and after the elections last month. Ministers resigned. There were calls for Brown to go. He stayed.

There are limits to patterns in politics. I detect little energy for another coup following yesterday's summer by-election defeat. The case for a third attempt to remove a Prime Minister would have to be based on a much wider range of arguments than a single by-election, the local and European elections in June (which were even worse for Labour), the opinion polls in September and on Brown's performance when he returns from his semi-holiday at the end of next month.

In fact, he never really takes holidays. Even in Southwold last year he spent a lot of time planning his autumnal survival strategy, on the phone and in meetings with Ed Balls and others. This summer he plans to give a lot of thought to a general election campaign which will start unofficially after the break. When his aides first proposed the idea of an election in autumn 2007, Brown was sceptical, saying they should have cancelled their summer holidays in order to prepare properly for the campaign. He has almost cancelled summer this time.

The rebels had their chance to remove Brown last month and failed. As one of them told me a few days ago: "We did not have an alternative candidate. In the end that is what explains what went wrong". They still do not have one.

Key cabinet ministers also made their choice when, in their different ways, they supported Brown last month. Lord Mandelson, Alan Johnson and David Miliband are unlikely to revisit those decisions in the autumn. Some of those who might have played their part in another insurrection are leaving politics altogether.

Since the last failed coup, Alan Milbun has announced he will not be standing at the next election; so has Patricia Hewitt. One or two other former ministers who resigned last month are giving up too. If anything, the rebels are weaker now than they were in early June. At an Independent readers' meeting in Manchester this week, one of the most vociferous dissenters, Graham Stinger, admitted he thought Brown would now lead Labour into the election. With Stringer making such a prediction, not one that gives his side of the argument any momentum, I would put a lot of money on Brown remaining as leader.

This entire period has felt very different from the fall of Margaret Thatcher, when Tory MPs acted to save their seats. After the MPs' expenses saga, a lot of Labour backbenchers have more or less given up. There is no energy for insurrection. Some do not seem to mind if they lose.

This can be of only limited comfort to Brown. Following a brief lift in the autumn, the polls have been terrible for Labour since early December after the pre-Budget report. Brown's most astute advisers realise that he and others must decide soon what message they want to deliver in this year's pre-Budget report and work backwards from that decision. In other words, their messages in September during the build-up to the conference and the conference itself must reflect and prepare for what they plan to announce in the pre-Budget report on public spending, tax and the overall state of the economy. These advisers recognise the Conservatives have won the tactical battle so far. After yesterday's result, how could they fail to do so?

But politics is so shapeless at the moment, Cameron cannot be confident yet of winning an overall majority. UKIP's strong performance in the by-election, coming ahead of the Greens, shows it is still a force. The MPs' expenses scandal and the related rise of the smaller parties are wild cards as the general election approaches. Will the next election mark a distinct turn against a long-serving government in the middle of an economic crisis or reflect a wider anti-politics mood in which both the two bigger parties are victims? Until Cameron knows the answer to that question, he cannot be certain of a decisive victory.

Evidently, he is not complacent. He visited Norwich six times, surely a record for a Leader of the Opposition in relation to by-elections. Tony Blair was a much less frequent visitor to by-elections in the run up to the 1997 election and was a surprisingly shy campaigner, inadvertently conveying a sense that he could not wait to leave. Cameron is more effusive in these situations and could not keep away. His hyperactivity is triumphantly vindicated.

Partially the course is set. Labour has no other candidate to lead them. As one cabinet minister put it to me yesterday: "I just can't imagine Alan Johnson preparing for the next G8 summit and the pre-Budget report." Cameron and George Osborne have made spending cuts their theme but cleverly frame the debate as one between honesty and dishonesty. The debate on spending is more complex than it seems, but who is in favour of dishonesty? Unless Brown can change the terms of the debate by the end of the year, he and Labour are heading for a massive defeat whatever happens to the other parties.