Three myths whirl around the Government after last week's strangely shapeless crisis. The first is that the events of last week make it more likely Labour will lose the next election. The second is that Gordon Brown is badly damaged because the insurrection provoked a lethal attack from Charles Clarke. The third is that Brown is in even more trouble because he will probably face a challenge from another cabinet minister. All the myths are wrong.
The Government would be doomed if a blazing row had erupted over policy. Splits over policy tend to take at least a decade to resolve. Last week was a different matter. There was an insurrection over political choreography. There were half-hearted acts of brutality and poorly co-ordinated rebellions with slightly different objectives. Some wanted Blair out. Others wanted a revised timetable for Blair's departure. Some wanted a publicly declared timetable.
Labour is lucky. The attempt to change the choreography happened a long time before the next election. Soon there will be a resolution. Blair will take his bow and a new leader will be in place. In contrast members of John Major's cabinet all drank together and reminisced about their days at Cambridge. Nonetheless they fell out over a major policy and the government collapsed. The events of recent days will not be the start of a similar never-ending story.
Some argue, though, that the insurrection provoked Brown's critics to launch fatal public attacks and made it more likely that he will face a challenge from another cabinet minister. Both these interpretations are nonsense for a simple reason. As the front runner, despised by some in the Cabinet and by a few former cabinet ministers, Brown was always going to face a public onslaught at some point.
The former home secretary Charles Clarke has been ready to explode against him for years. Mr Clarke, with a political personality that is shaped by a curious mix of intense anger and insightful empathy, was an eruption waiting to happen. Brown is lucky it has happened early on in the embryonic leadership contest. He has time to deal with it.
Even if Clarke had not struck, others would have done so. Indeed I suspect another explosion is imminent with the publication of David Blunkett's diaries next month. My guess is that the main story will be Blunkett's attacks on Brown. Brown was going to have to address questions about his alleged psychological flaws irrespective of last week's drama.
Similarly there was always a possibility Brown would face a challenge from those that are regarded vaguely as carriers of the Blairite flame. Alan Milburn has consistently refused to rule out standing. Long before last week's drama David Miliband was under intense pressure to stand from some Blairites. The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, has been the favourite of some in the media for at least six months. Pretend last week's events did not happen and Johnson would have awoken most mornings to read that he should take on Brown. He would also have taken a call from a cabinet minister or two making a similar plea.
I see no evidence that any potential candidate is suddenly in a much stronger position within the Labour Party. Indeed one of the more significant developments of last week was that the younger generation of political stars came out unequivocally for Brown. Ruth Kelly put it most effectively when she found herself having to respond to Clarke's malevolent eruption on the Today programme last Friday. She pointed out that there were a group of younger ministers who were not scarred by the battles of the 1980s. They are not conditioned to lapse into feuding over personalities and faction fighting. David Miliband has made similar points.
Here is the reality. Before last week the anti-Brown Blairites were without a credible candidate. Still they are without one.
Brown's long tenure at the Treasury is both his strength and his problem. He has owned economic policy since 1992. No one else in the Cabinet has written or said a word of interest about how a left-of-centre government should run the economy. But Brown's strength, his economic policies that have commanded broad support while redistributing stealthily and increasing investment in public services significantly, is also the source of his limited vulnerability. Chancellors infuriate cabinet colleagues. Brown is not alone. In Denis Healey's memoirs Healey argued that the main reason why he failed to secure the leadership in 1980 was that he had alienated too many people by the decisions he took as chancellor. Brown has ruled from the Treasury in more benevolent circumstances, but he has been there almost twice as long as Healey. At some point in the leadership contest thwarted cabinet ministers were going to fume.
Meanwhile the advisers working within Downing Street were always going to be fiercely protective of Blair. The past few days has reinforced the protectiveness, but nothing more than that. The advisers like working with Blair and see only his more mesmerising qualities. After the nightmarish week he delivered a performance of perfect pitch at the left-of-centre Progress conference at the weekend. I am told that a more extraordinary performance occurred earlier last week during his visit to York at the height of the political storm. While parts of his party were attempting to remove him Blair delivered his speech on social exclusion, responded to questions from a range of specialists with good-humoured verve and kept to his promise of staying on for coffee afterwards. In the meantime his sweaty advisers wondered whether he would still be Prime Minister when he got back to Downing Street. Viewing such a good-natured, ruthless focus it is not surprising that they fume against the Chancellor. This too was going to be an issue before the events of last week.
Only one single fact is new. Blair has stated publicly that he will be gone within a year. The certainty changes the political context to Brown's benefit. In his BBC interview on Sunday Brown felt free for the first time to talk openly about his candidacy and his style of leadership. He feels slightly liberated from his straitjacket. Similarly yesterday John Prescott spoke about the arrangements for a contest when before he would say nothing. The choreography is changing.
This does not mean life will be easy for Brown. He faces internal foes and a stronger Conservative Party. But Brown would have faced these challenges if nothing had happened last week. As far as last week's drama has changed anything it has helped Brown by forcing Blair to declare his hand in public. Brown will almost certainly be leader a little earlier and the awkward battle will take place in a more clearly defined context. Far from being the loser Brown has got what he wanted.Reuse content