Steve Richards: If this is a leadership contest, where are the real leaders?

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Bad opinion polls spark leadership speculation. It is one of the few iron laws in politics. Can a new leader prevent defeat? Who will lead if the party is defeated? The attempts to find answers to these questions heighten the sense of feverish decline.

The polls are terrible for Labour, so bad that speculation extends beyond the cause of a leadership crisis and on to whether Yvette Cooper will stand to counter the apparently soaring candidacy of Harriet Harman – as if the Harman bandwagon is almost unstoppable.

Cooper is married to Ed Balls. Suddenly we have the prospect of husbands and wives along with brothers – the Milibands – battling it out in a contest of fraught emotional intensity. I am exhausted already. Goodness knows what it must be like as an aspiring candidate with close members of your family breathing down your neck.

The slight problem is that there is no contest and probably there will not be one for at least another year.

Gordon Brown shows that unpopularity takes its toll. He is not an actor like Blair or Thatcher – both of whom managed to look 10 years younger in the midst of a crisis. There he was on Wednesday, white as a ghost at his Downing Street press conference, the polls reducing him to a shadow, transparently shaken, neurotically cautious, yet cunningly opaque and defiantly resilient. His resilience is tested by the most insulting speculation, questions about the succession as if he has already left the stage.

In fact, not all of the talk is speculative. We know a little, and what we know is not as destabilising as some of the feverish talk suggests. No one will challenge Brown this side of an election. This is in contrast to last autumn when one or two ministers were gearing up to do so. Reports about Brown going off to regulate the global banking system come from sources looking at dignified exits, not a departure which follows a humiliating coup. The flaw with the banking hypothesis is that there might be no single regulatory job, and even if there were it might not go to Brown. If the offer were made, Brown might not take such a post. The hypothesis involves several

demanding leaps.

It is still possible that Brown might go of his own accord before an election, without a new job offer. When things were going badly last time around, he told an ally that he felt guilty about what was happening to Labour under his watch. If he felt a Tory victory could be prevented by his departure he would consider going. I suspect that Brown would do anything to stop Cameron and Osborne securing power, including stepping down for a vote-winning alternative.

But this hypothesis involves almost as many leaps as the one in which he goes off to control the world's banks. If he were to take a martyred bow in the summer there would be a leadership contest without a leader, half-formed politicians asking to take on the toughest job in politics at a time of economic crisis and with a general election to plan. Most of the potential candidates have given little or no thought to the economy, and not much more to the election.

The unyielding dominance of Blair and Brown for more than a decade means that there are no Titans below, no equivalent of the Clarkes, Heseltines and Hurds – who could have risen with self-confidence to the top job in the 1990s. Now, when aspiring candidates take a giddying look at the ascent they tend to fall back rather than stride on. David Miliband's first big political battle was a tentative bid to oust the Prime Minister and take over last autumn. That was quite a debut and it did not exactly go to plan.

Of the aspiring leaders, Ed Balls, is the only one who has played a major role in shaping economic policy, but that was behind the scenes. He remains a pivotal confidant on economic matters, but still below the radar.

Harriet Harman is one of only two fully developed authentic voices in the Cabinet, someone who has fought battles for decades on the public stage. But she has no experience on the economy or of taking big, nerve wracking strategic decisions.

Alan Johnson is the other authentic voice, and his life story makes him a walking narrative. Without saying very much, he would stand as a challenge to the Etonians on the other side. But he is similarly limited in his policy range.

The Milibands are more energetically committed, and Brother Ed is uniquely well placed. Genuinely he is to the left of the Blairites, and yet he is much more than a tribal Brownite. But he has not been tested as a minister, trapped for a long time in the Cabinet Office. Then as a public performer, James Purnell makes Geoffrey Howe seem like Elvis Presley. Jon Cruddas has a distinctive take, and brilliantly dissected in The Independent yesterday an article by the former Blair aide, Phil Collins. The essence of Collins's article seemed to be that unless Labour followed Conservative policies it was dead. Cruddas could see that one off. But he has no ministerial experience.

One of them will surface at some point fully formed. But no one is there yet. All of them are testing the water. They are human beings. They know that there will be a vacancy before very long. They read that they are potential candidates, and that is intoxicating enough in itself to have an impact. That does not explain their every utterance.

Earlier this week I read that Ed Miliband opposed the Heathrow extension as a way of improving his leadership credentials – as if that was the end of the matter. I know for sure that Miliband was in a state about the entire sequence, fearing he would be remembered for the impotence of his opposition rather than for anything else. He did not emerge from the bruising Cabinet meeting on Heathrow solely with thoughts of the leadership on his mind.

All of them act with multi-layered calculations, as we all do with our more humdrum ambitions and beliefs. None of them is sure when a leadership contest will be held or in what context. Even in the event of a defeat, I am told there is a possibility that Brown will stay on as leader for a time.

There is a widespread fear at the top of the Labour Party that a leadership contest in the immediate aftermath of traumatic defeat will produce a mad result. John Major went immediately in 1997 and the subsequent deranged contest was a disaster. Jim Callaghan stayed on after 1979, but for too long. Michael Foot went when he was sure that Neil Kinnock would inherit the thorny crown. In leadership contests timing is everything. Whateverhappens at the next election, Brown will have a say as to who follows him.

In the meantime every word uttered by the Harmans, the Ballses and the rest will be seen through the prism of the leadership. There is nothing they can do about it, even if they wanted to. That is what happens when polls point to a calamitous defeat.