Steve Richards: Should Brown stay or go? And does it matter?

The one possible alternative route would be for him to depart voluntarily
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Gordon Brown's leadership is the subject of seething speculation once more. I have spoken to ministers, special advisers, MPs and other senior Labour supporters in recent days. Before long, and not always at my prompting, two questions arise: Will Brown lead Labour in the next election? Should he do so?

There are several reasons why the questions are being asked with a fresh urgency. Most obviously they were always going to be posed this autumn. After last summer's failed coup some of the rebels made clear that they would return to the fray.

When David Cameron bumped into Charles Clarke at the end of the summer, the former Cabinet minister told the Tory leader in relation to the attempted coup: "Don't worry... we'll be back". Cameron replied to him only half jokingly: "That's exactly what I am worried about". And that of course is one of the arguments in the rebels' armoury. Cameron would prefer to face Brown at the election than deal with the wild card of a new leader who may give Labour a bounce.

Three new factors have also come into play. The first is the spate of opinion polls that opened the new political season this month. In Number Ten and beyond there had been at least a faint hope that, after an August in which the Conservatives' frailty on health and other policy areas were exposed, the gap between the two parties might have narrowed. There was virtually no change – suggesting, perhaps, that as long as Brown is at the helm the Conservatives can say or do anything and remain well in the lead.

Second, Brown's handling of the Lockerbie/Libya affair reduced even his more ardent admirers to despair, exposing a wider failure to engage with the electorate. In the midst of Brown's chaotic response, one special adviser who was once a fan of the Prime Minister's declared to me: "It's time for the postman", a reference to Alan Johnson's previous vocation.

Third, there is more political energy buzzing around now than there was in the summer. One of the many reasons why the coup failed then was that Labour MPs had become lifeless as a result of the expenses' scandal. Many of them gave the impression that they were not that bothered if they were to lose their seats. After a break I detect a more fighting spirit within at least some Labour figures and a determination to finally take on a Conservative party advocating policies for the economy and Europe that have eerie echoes with the worst of the 1980s.

This post-summer mood could manifest itself in two different ways, a rallying around for a final heave under the existing leader or a more ruthlessly determined bid to change the prevailing media narrative which runs so favourably in the Tories' direction by removing him.

This, though, is where the reasoning from the insurrectionists becomes irrational. Their favoured candidate, Alan Johnson, is a smoother, more natural media performer compared with the publicly agonised and opaque performances of Brown, but Johnson's sudden elevation would not change the media narrative and could make the story for Labour even worse.

The harsh reality for Labour is that the influential right wing newspapers that once gave Blair a fair hearing have made up their mind that they want Cameron and Osborne in power. Almost certainly they would report a sudden switch of leader as a symptom of Labour's crisis and not as a successful resolution of internal traumas. What is more, if Johnson as a new Prime Minister were to make one slip as he outlined economic policy for the first time in his political career, they would slaughter him and his party.

They would be right to do so. In their current anti-politics mood voters will respond negatively to a party that switched leaders in a transparent bid to hold on to some seats. There were some big policy issues such as the poll tax and Europe when the Conservatives dumped Margaret Thatcher in 1990, which at least gave the expedient move an air of political legitimacy. What big policy issues would Labour MPs hide behind in the hope of saving a few seats?

There is a big debate about Labour's future surfacing, but that is another reason why a change of leader in the next few months would be a red herring. As I listened to Jon Cruddas deliver his Compass lecture earlier this week, with James Purnell responding, the two of them agreeing on quite a lot and diverging on important points, I became convinced that the coronation of Johnson would be an act of deceit, and would be seen through very quickly.

This is a party that needs at some point a proper leadership contest in which ideas and policies are properly debated, not least when the weaknesses of the deliberately ill-defined new Labour project are increasingly exposed. It has not had a proper contest since 1994.

Yet it would look utterly self indulgent and reckless for a governing party to have a genuine leadership battle in the run up to a general election and with so many suffering in the midst of an economic crisis that is not yet over. Here is the insurrectionist's dilemma: a coronation would look cynical. A full blown pre-election contest is not feasible.

What of the other question: Will the change still happen? Some dissenters suggest that the deed could only be carried out by senior ministers such as Peter Mandelson, Alistair Darling and even Ed Balls, Brown's closest ally. But they are the figures immersed in the autumnal strategy with Brown which aims to highlight the significant and real divide between Labour and the Conservatives on public spending.

As I wrote on Tuesday, it is a strategy which looks ahead to the pre-Budget report later this year and ultimately to the election. Each of the key ministers in different ways and with varying degrees of intensity are aware of Brown's flaws, but are signed up to this one final attempt to bring about a recovery in the polls. They are not going to move against him.

There are also the old familiar problems for those that seek a toppling of a leader. The chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Tony Lloyd, is adamant the rebels do not have the numbers and Brown's critics, a larger number than the insurrectionists, do not have an alternative candidate. I am told that Mandelson cannot envisage Johnson rising to the huge demands of being Prime Minister and does not feel David Miliband is ready yet.

Of course the joy and torment of politics is its sweaty unpredictability. If the polls are still terrible for Labour after the conference season something dramatic might happen. No one knows for sure. One Cabinet minister tells me there will be no successful coup but that it is just possible Brown may decide to quit.

In my view this is the one possible alternative route, a voluntary departure. It is still unlikely and an uncontested coronation of Johnson would leave all the unresolved problems. Let us not forget Labour was miles behind in the polls in the final years of Blair. The reasons for the party's unpopularity are deep and a change to an untested leader in advance of an election will not address them.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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