Steve Richards: Gordon Brown is down (but not out)

The Labour Party is divided over its leader – but a contest could play into the hands of the Tories
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The Independent Online

Cabinet ministers and Labour MPs are doomed to have restless holidays. Multi-layered calculations whirl around their fragile minds as they agonise over what to do when their anguished breaks comes to an end. Having spoken to a range of ministers, MPs and trade unionists over recent days, here is the state of play as the pause button is pressed for a few weeks.

First, there are a couple of embryonic myths that can be quickly demolished. One relates to the role of the Justice Secretary Jack Straw. There is much speculation that Mr Straw could be the figure who wields the dagger and then becomes briefly a caretaker leader. I do not believe that is the way Mr Straw regards his possible role.

If he becomes a candidate in a leadership contest, it would be for the long term. He would project himself as the leader with experience, not trapped by definition as a Blairite or a Brownite. Of course we are leaping several hurdles here. Mr Straw has not decided yet that he is ready to be an assassin, but evidently he has doubts about Mr Brown.

He was nowhere to be seen after the party's defeat at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election and has given no interview in the aftermath of the Glasgow East defeat. He is on holiday now, but a ferociously committed prime ministerial ally might have given a phone interview rather than issue a statement of Shakespearean ambiguity warning his party against a "summer of introspection".

Note the time limit in the statement. Mr Straw did not extend his warning to the autumn. Under certain still ill- defined circumstances, I suspect Mr Straw would be willing to come to the aid of his party, but only if he had a sense that he could become prime minister at the end of the process. I doubt if he will lead a delegation to Mr Brown telling him to go if the sole reward for such risky brinkmanship would be the somewhat humiliating role of "caretaker".

The Foreign Secretary David Miliband is in a different position. He is the bookies' favourite to be the next Labour leader. Given the strength of his position, there is some speculation that Mr Miliband would prefer to wait for his chance after the election rather than inherit a situation where Labour is 20 points behind in the polls.

I know this is not the case. If there were a vacancy over the next few months, Mr Miliband would stand and is in some ways prepared for the daunting task. But he will not act in any overt way to undermine Mr Brown. Others would have to wield the knife.

Whether they will do so, and in what form, is still far from clear. The Labour party is in a very odd position at the moment. It is not greatly divided over policy. There is no equivalent of the Maastricht Treaty, carving a fatal ideological split. But it cannot agree over what to do with the leadership question.

At one end, there are those convinced that Mr Brown must go, probably this autumn. These include the Ultra-Blairites who have opposed him from the beginning, a growing number of MPs who fear that they will lose their seats under his leadership and some ministers who despair at the dysfunctional arrangements in No 10 and Mr Brown's style of doing business, an underestimated explanation for their disillusionment. They could easily be joined by those associated with the left of centre Compass group, although leading members worry, like many others, about public perceptions if Labour chooses yet another prime minister.

On the other side are those that continue to have faith in Mr Brown, represented by John Prescott's weekend blast in which the former deputy prime minister argued that Mr Brown's experience and qualifications for the job overwhelmed those of other potential leaders.

On the whole Mr Brown also retains the support of the allies who have been with him through the last tempestuous decade, although one I spoke to wondered whether the combination of mistakes over the early election speculation and the 10p tax, combined with the economic situation, might prove to be a fatal combination.

Lower down the scale, Mr Brown has considerable support. One senior trade unionist sent me an email exchange with another of his colleagues, despairing of calls for a leadership contest. Here is a flavour: "I hope Gordon can see his way through all this – best person to do it by a mile."

As I wrote on Saturday, this view was implicitly echoed by Labour party members at a meeting in Birmingham last week organised by Compass and the more Blairite Progress group. When I asked the audience whether they wanted a change of leader, only one raised his hand.

In between are some cabinet ministers and MPs who are genuinely unsure what to do. There are four factors fuelling the tentativeness. A new prime minister would have to call an election within a few months in order to acquire legitimacy. Some wonder whether a successor would make much difference and could indeed be worse. No one is entirely sure how to bring about such a dramatic change. Finally, a contest could take several weeks, creating a dangerous vacuum.

If I were a Labour MP, I would note the polls, all of which suggest the Tory lead is soft and that almost as many voters identify with Labour as they do with the Conservatives. There has been no fundamental sea change and, as the last year has shown, fortunes can shift dramatically. I would then pose a question: In these wildly oscillating times would a new leadership team of David Miliband and Alan Johnson have a honeymoon, with a chance of propelling Labour into a poll lead? Next, I would note that in spite of the onslaught against him Mr Brown is best placed by far with his experience to address the pivotal economic questions. I would then ask a second question: Will voters credit Mr Brown with anything as long as he remains Prime Minister? Mr Brown's fate hangs on the answer to these two questions.