Steve Richards: The only certainty about this plot: it will damage Labour

The madness of this move overwhelms the reason

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Labour has acted madly many times since the last election. The attempt to dump Gordon Brown now is the maddest act of them all.

The events of yesterday morning are a small illustration as to why the insurrectionists show colossal misjudgement. First, Peter Mandelson delivered the most effective speech on government policy that any minister has made since the start of the economic crisis. Next, Gordon Brown was in robust form at Prime Minister's Question Time, performing more effectively at the despatch box than any of his immediate potential successors would be capable of doing. Then Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon fired their gun and nothing else mattered. Mandelson could have stayed in bed and Brown might as well have cancelled PMQs.

Given that one of the criticisms of Brown is his evasiveness, the tactics of the duo were dishonest and so obviously disingenuous that they make the Prime Minister's approach to "tax and spend" seem transparent in comparison. Hoon and Hewitt insisted that all they wanted was the issue of the leadership settled. With a look of pained innocence they explained that they were calling for a secret ballot and would not say whether they would support Brown.

Their reticence is laughable. They want him out and there is no need to hide behind the old device that all they seek is a ballot that would clear the air. John Major made the same claim when he took the desperate decision of calling a leadership contest in 1995. At least he was speaking for himself. The contest did not clear the air. Tony Benn described the riotous 1981 deputy leadership contest as "healing". Labour lost 20 per cent of its support during the healing process.

There is, of course, method in the current madness. This is the most dangerous period a Prime Minister has faced since Margaret Thatcher was removed in 1990 and rebels stirred against Blair in 2006. Charles Clarke, the main figure behind these latest moves, has finally achieved a breakthrough after weeks of arduous work behind the scenes. The so-called coup last summer was poorly co-ordinated. There was no trigger, beyond the resignation of James Purnell, a departure of which other rebels had no prior knowledge. This time a trigger is pulled and for an unpopular Prime Minister with an army of internal enemies, there is no certainty where the bullet will strike.

There is also reason behind the madness in the obvious sense that Brown breaks polling records in personal unpopularity and has in some respects been a deeply troubled leader since the non-election fiasco in the early autumn of 2007. Often he has looked miserable, at least in public. For Brown, a dangerously large number of cabinet ministers feel let down for complex and different reasons by his leadership. Some of their statements yesterday were not exactly effusive in their declarations of loyalty.

Still the madness overwhelms the reason. An act of regicide committed only months before an election sends out a single message to a wider electorate already disillusioned with politics – that a party is falling apart. If Brown is removed there is no guarantee that there will be a smooth coronation, and nor should there be. The party has already staged one leadership contest with a single candidate. It could not hold another without looking like it is paying tribute to elections in the old Soviet Union. Yet a genuine contest with a range of candidates would highlight divisions at a phase in the political cycle when a façade of unity is essential.

Labour cannot afford to stage another contrived contest where ideas and differences are suppressed. But at this point it would be perverse to hold one where they are highlighted.

Unlike in the months leading to the fall of Thatcher there is not a single poll suggesting that an alternative leader would improve Labour's prospects. Instead a new Prime Minister, with no experience of economic policy and planning elections, would be in charge of both. Cameron would run rings around such a figure at a point when his own inexperience is becoming an issue. What would a new leader say to justify the conflagration? "I continue with the same policies, but I hope you all like me more than you liked Gordon, or indeed Tony, who we also dumped. Vote Labour. Thank you and good night".

Inadvertently the leading rebel, Charles Clarke, is proof of his own misguided strategy. When he has not been attacking Brown he has outlined in speeches and articles a series of distinct, progressive policies that are daring and yet would command wide appeal. They deserve a hearing. Not a word of them would be heard in some contrived contest to bring about a quick change of leader during the run-up to an election. If Clarke succeeds in bringing about a pre-election contest his agenda would be one of the many victims.

Whatever happens over the next few days Labour is the biggest victim. The government has one hope in the forthcoming election and that is to present Brown and his team as the experienced figures to get Britain through the economic crisis. Brown might be an exhausted figure, drained of confidence, but he still has a clearer sense of how to approach the next election than most of his critics. Usefully he still thinks there is a chance of victory, or for Labour to be the biggest party in a hung parliament. His close ally Ed Balls agrees. In the current irrational frenzy they are the ones being accused of wanting a "core-vote strategy", one that assumes defeat is inevitable, when they are virtually the only members of the cabinet who believe they can win. Until Hewitt and Hoon made their moves there were signs that their strategy was starting to make an impact, with polls showing a significant closing of the gap.

What will happen now? Brown and his key aides know they could still face a turbulent few days, probably until the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday. Briefly yesterday afternoon Brown thought about bringing the PLP meeting forward to last night, but decided that such a move would seem like an act of panic when he wanted to convey a sense, as far as he could, of business as usual. Almost certainly the dissenters will not succeed. This is their third attempt and they have never had the necessary level of support.

Brown is in a position very similar to Harold Wilson, who was widely loathed internally and in the media from the late 1960s to his departure in 1976. Yet after much agonising no cabinet minister moved against Wilson, out of fear that a rival might become leader and that the party would be in a worse position than it was under the current leader. Like Wilson, Brown is also politically cleverer than his critics realise. He would not have survived for so long at the top of British politics if he was as inept as current orthodoxy suggests.

But Labour is in a mess. There are many separate currents that have formed the current storm. Most obviously Charles Clarke and some others want to force Brown out. More widely, private briefings from ministers, reported in recent days, reflect a degree of positioning for any future leadership contest, but not an immediate one. Other cabinet ministers have more current concerns, feeling excluded from the key strategic decisions and resentful for what they regard as hostile No 10 briefings.

Almost certainly Harriet Harman and Jack Straw are in this category and might well have made their disquiet known to Brown in the curious lull before they declared their support. Peter Mandelson is in a more complex position. He regards his role as the keeper of the New Labour flame, fighting any perceived attempt to mount a so-called core vote strategy. The accumulated impact of disparate grumbles, some of them much deeper than others, has created an unstable atmosphere and an impression perhaps that a coup would succeed this time when the mutineers are still few in number.

The leadership challenges and unrest that have punctuated Labour's third term are symptoms of a wider identity crisis. This is the third attempted coup against Brown. There was also the so-called September coup against Blair, one in which, bizarrely, he was forced to leave voluntarily. With a dark symmetry, some Labour MPs called on Blair to resign on the weekend after his third election victory in 2005. Now a few Labour MPs call on Brown to go months before the next election. The current drama has deep roots. Probably Brown will stay, but his and Labour's task is suddenly much harder than it already was.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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