Steve Richards: The myths whirling round this crisis

So here is the reality: cabinet ministers were not cowardly staying in their jobs
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The Independent Online

Every epic crisis produces its own myths, or at least commonly held assumptions that turn out to be false. Already there are several myths whirling around Labour's crisis. They are worth closer scrutiny. In a shapeless drama the false assumptions provide some guidance as to what is actually happening and what might happen next.

The first myth to have surfaced in recent days is that senior ministers, in particular David Miliband, were cowardly in not following the supposedly audacious, James Purnell, in resigning from the Cabinet. The opposite is closer to the truth. If Miliband and others had taken the temptingly glamorous alternative course they would have been hailed as heroes by virtually every columnist in the land: "This time Miliband has shown his mettle". But with good cause lots of them agonised about what would follow such a move. As one cabinet minister put it to me: "Gordon hangs on only because we fear an early election and there was no alternative candidate once Alan Johnson had given Gordon his unambiguous backing".

The observation is made by a minister who is normally seen as supportive towards Brown and yet his assessment is brutally pragmatic. According to this view Brown is still standing not because most ministers have faith that he can rise to the daunting challenges, but for entirely negative reasons. They are not sure about Johnson's qualities and how they get to the stage where Johnson becomes leader after a traumatic act of regicide.

For now at least some ministers have opted for the relative clarity of the Brown/Mandelson duopoly than a leap into the unknown. Their move was less self indulgent than the newly deified Purnell who walked out without any strategic thinking. He took the more cowardly option of instant gratification followed by, well, not very much.

Some of those left behind plan to be more assertive on the basis that they and their party have nothing to lose, almost literally true after the party's performance in the European elections, an outcome described by one minister as "surreally bad". The so called cowardly ministers are in a stronger position to influence events than Purnell.

This brings us to myth number two, which is connected to myth number three. I heard several times yesterday that last week's results were so bad that in a bizarre way they actually help to buttress Brown's position: MPs will fear an immediate election even more with their party securing a mere 15 % of the vote in the European elections.

This is too clever by half. There is no upside for a leader in terrible results. The outcome of the European elections is one new ingredient of the story since Purnell's resignation. They are so grim for Labour, they can only make MPs agonise again whether Brown should lead them into a general election. If Blair had still been leader and Labour got 15% of the vote, Brown's entourage would have fumed understandably with conspiratorial despair.

In fairness to Brown the elections took place in the worst possible context, with MPs' expenses and malevolent ministerial resignations capturing the ghastly headlines for Labour on polling day. Even so he is leader at a time when the party's electoral performance makes Michael Foot seem like a vote winner. This is unambiguously, unqualified bad news for Brown.

The need for an immediate election if he were to be replaced is the third myth. I am told if there is a leadership contest this summer Alan Johnson would promise an election in October. That would be the end of the matter. I think it is possible he could get away with announcing a date for the following spring.

Calls for an early election will be a secondary story compared with the media excitement about a new Prime Minister that marked the end of the Blair/Brown era. There will be more focus in the media about the novelty of the postman's rise than the need for an immediate election. Anyway as Frank Field was pointing out mischievously yesterday the key constitutional question is whether a Prime Minister can command a majority in the Commons. A new leader would be able to do so.

Now today's Independent exposes a fourth myth. A crucial missing element to this drama was an opinion poll suggesting any other Labour leader would make a difference to the party's standing. Today's poll suggests this is not the case. Apparently Johnson would take Labour into hung parliament territory whereas Brown or any other candidate would lead their party to defeat.

This is a highly significant development. In the build up to the fall of Margaret Thatcher an array of polls suggested that the Conservatives would get a boost if they replaced her with Michael Heseltine or John Major. Until now there has been no evidence that Labour had an equivalent figure who could command more support.

So here is the reality. Cabinet ministers were not cowardly in staying put, but keep options open under a Prime Minister who is more dependent on their support than they are on his. In contrast the supposedly brave Purnell pulls no levers in the wilderness. The elections are a terrible blow for Brown and not the basis for him to claim that they must stick with him. There is no need for an immediate election if a new leader is in place. The Independent poll suggests Labour does have a more popular alternative.

These four counter myths are not decisive. As I wrote on Saturday, a frenzied focus on leadership is nearly always a symptom of a wider crisis within a party. Contests often solve nothing. Yesterday the rebels had no momentum as Brown completed his ministerial reshuffle. Now the disparate rebels talk about the autumn being the pivotal moment. Always they find reason to delay, not least because they do not have the support to make their move.

But the four counter-myths of recent days suggest to me that even though Brown has defied his tormentors yet again he is much more vulnerable than he was even a week ago. He will get the space to continue until the autumn. If he makes no headway in the polls between now and then, he will not lead Labour in to the next election and, I suspect, would not try to do so.