Steve Richards: Rebels without a real cause (except a change of leader)

Even if Brown gets a rapturous reception in the hall after his conference speech, he is not safe

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The Labour Party is in the worst of all possible worlds. A few MPs call publicly for a leadership contest, but nowhere near enough to trigger one in the immediate future. The damaging quotes are out there. They cannot be unsaid. Voters who turn away from Labour will note that some of the party's own MPs share their concerns about the Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is still there.

Gordon Brown's political career has been shaped by a fear of leadership contests. In 1994 he chose not to stand against Tony Blair partly because he calculated that he would have to portray Blair as a right-winger in a desperate attempt to win, exposing the tensions at the top of New Labour before the fragile project had got off the ground.

From 2004 onwards he placed huge pressure on Blair to resign, but never considered a challenge, as he worried about the subsequent bloodbath. When Blair finally left he did all he could to prevent a contest from taking place, not wishing to define himself against a Blairite alternative.

Some of his critics argue that Brown's aversion to internal debate is a sign of cowardice. The early days of the current revolt suggests he acted in the past with sensible pragmatic caution. New Labour was a flawed, precarious construction from the beginning, not one that could withstand much internal introspection.

Look at the rebels currently seeking to make waves, a disparate bunch from across the party. There are others who privately agree with them in relation to Brown who are also placed in different parts of what Harold Wilson used to call, euphemistically, Labour's "broad church". I know of one minister contemplating resignation in order to call for a contest. Probably there are others having similar thoughts. The phone lines are buzzing with MPs and ministers talking of little else. Some hope a new leader would move the party rightwards into a Blairite comfort zone. Others seek a more leftward direction. Most agonise over what is the best way forward. Those agonising include some significant cabinet ministers.

In terms of the public dissenters it would be misleading to define them in terms of policy or political philosophy. Their thoughts are not so elevated. The debate over policy is virtually non-existent. Instead the rebels mouth banal platitudes about the need for "a clear sense of direction" or the importance of "moving forward". This is not good enough if they want to go through the trauma of removing a prime minister and elect their third leader since the general election.

I set three tests for the rebels and those in the Cabinet who might, tentatively, almost, with fingers crossed, want to become prime minister over the next few months.

First they must explain how they would deal with the economic crisis. Brown's dominance over economic policy since 1992 means most of them have given little thought to the most important area of all.

Imagine if David Miliband were prime minister by the end of the year. Who would be his chancellor? Let us say that it is James Purnell. Other than panicking through lack of experience, how would they respond to the threat of another bank collapsing in Britain, as is possible in the current epoch changing economic circumstances? Have they got a different approach to the impact of petrol, food and energy price rises? I wonder whether they would know which levers to pull, having never been near the economic levers in their political lives.

The irony about Brown is that his long tenure as chancellor has become part of his political nightmare as he is getting blamed for everything, but the experience does mean he knows the terrain when the volcanoes erupt.

The second condition for the rebels and their potential leadership candidates is that they must show clearly they have a coherent policy agenda for the future that is linked to values at least vaguely associated with a progressive party. The MP Jon Cruddas has gone some way towards meeting this condition, but he is on the backbenches and has more freedom to act.

He has not met the third condition, which is to show that the policies and values can build an election-winning coalition. The polls suggest that nobody has done so. If there were a contest presumably the likes of John Hutton and his old friend Alan Milburn would seek one set of policies from a new leader and others will want something completely different. Who is the titan who can bring it all together again?

So far all that unites the rebels is a desire to see the removal of Brown. The common cause might prove to be enough as another factor drives the rebellion, one that defies analysis as to where all of this will lead. Some of the MPs are acting in this way above all because they are terrified of losing their seats. One of those calling for a contest returned from her constituency at the end of the summer concluding for the first time that she faced defeat at the next election unless there was a change of leader.

In the end it was Conservative MPs convinced that they would lose under Margaret Thatcher's leadership that brought about her demise. This is why the latest moves are so dangerous for Brown. As with Thatcher some MPs are making no other calculation other than this: "Change is worth the risk or else I lose my seat."

Next week in the conference at Manchester most cabinet ministers I have spoken to expect that the party will rally around Brown. One tells me that it is the dissenters who will get a rough time, adding that the goodwill to Brown would be a genuine reflection of where the party stood. The same minister also accepted that the mood of the Parliamentary Labour Party is different.

This means that, even if Brown gets a rapturous reception in the hall after his conference speech, he is not safe. Thatcher's longest ovation came after her conference address in 1990. A few weeks' later she was gone. It is the opinion polls in the weeks after the conference season that will be more significant than any hurdles placed in front of Brown in advance of the party gathering in Manchester. If he is removed the deed would be done by MPs and cabinet ministers whatever the mood of activists at Manchester next week, the equivalent of a football club chairman getting rid of a manager even if the fans disapprove at first.

If the rebels achieve their objective they will have done so without knowing what will happen next. It would be a desperate throw of the dice. I do not believe they should throw it until they or a potential candidate come close to meeting the three conditions I have outlined, but in such an unstable context and with Labour doing so badly in the polls the prospects of a leadership contest move closer, another one in which Brown would not take part.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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