The harsh truth of life on electoral death row

With a small margin, other influences beyond the name of the leader are far more important
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The Independent Online

Earlier this week I joined Jim Knight, the agreeable Labour MP for Dorset South, on BBC News 24 to discuss with Jon Sopel the speculation surrounding Tony Blair's future. On the face of it, Mr Knight is perhaps the most important Labour MP - with the absolute right to comment publicly on whether his party's prospects would be enhanced or hindered at the next general election by the continuation of Tony Blair as Labour's leader - because he was the only Labour MP to gain his seat from the Tories at the 2001 general election and has the smallest Labour parliamentary majority, 153 votes. A swing to the Tories of 0.17 per cent loses him the seat.

Earlier this week I joined Jim Knight, the agreeable Labour MP for Dorset South, on BBC News 24 to discuss with Jon Sopel the speculation surrounding Tony Blair's future. On the face of it, Mr Knight is perhaps the most important Labour MP - with the absolute right to comment publicly on whether his party's prospects would be enhanced or hindered at the next general election by the continuation of Tony Blair as Labour's leader - because he was the only Labour MP to gain his seat from the Tories at the 2001 general election and has the smallest Labour parliamentary majority, 153 votes. A swing to the Tories of 0.17 per cent loses him the seat.

His view on his prospects for re-election, however, was remarkably robust. Mr Blair won him his seat last time and, very simply, he therefore believes that Mr Blair is the best leader to help him retain it next time.

In one respect Mr Knight is absolutely right. A change of leader will make no difference to his own chances of re-election. With such a small margin, even if Clem Attlee or John Smith were to rise from the dead, other influences beyond the name of the leader will be far more important. Dorset South's result will not be determined solely by the personality of Mr Blair or Gordon Brown.

I understood Mr Knight's feelings, having once represented a constituency with a similar majority. If an MP narrowly wins a seat for their party for the first time in decades, a quiet calm enters the soul and the temptation to panic is muted. From day one, provided you accept that you are permanently on electoral death row, a fatalistic approach prevents you from taking to the airwaves bewailing the shortcomings of your leader. Mr Knight repeated John Prescott's script suggesting that most of the weekend speculation was "press prattle" and nearly convinced me that he genuinely believed he could win again under Mr Blair's leadership.

But if the Tories cannot win Mr Knight's seat back, regardless of who is leading the Labour Party, it will be a pretty poor show. Even when the Tories lost this seat they were already recovering. Their share of the vote increased from 36.1 per cent in 1997 (when they won) to 41.6 in 2001, when they lost. Mr Knight's victory was wholly attributable to 3,000 Liberal Democrats who switched to Labour to keep the Tories out.

By all accounts, and Mr Knight confirmed this, Mr Prescott did a good job in convincing the bulk of Labour MPs at Monday's private meeting that his weekend press interview had been misinterpreted. I believe that to be correct. Mr Prescott was genuinely seeking to reach for the watering can to put out the fires on the Prime Minister's behalf. He had, unwittingly, picked up the petrol can by mistake - but it was a forgivable error.

I once urged Mr Blair to use his deputy in the way that Margaret Thatcher used Willie Whitelaw. Mr Prescott has now become more important to the future of this Government than even Whitelaw was during his heyday in the early 1980s. Whitelaw had retired as an active combatant during the poll tax debacle, but had he been present in the final years of Mrs Thatcher, he might well have persuaded her to retire gracefully, or to abandon the poll tax, or even have been successful in saving her bacon in 1990.

The trouble for Mr Knight - and others with similar margins - is that while I'm sure he does not lose sleep over his majority, neither does Mr Blair. He is dispensable: he was not needed for the great victory in 1997 and was merely welcome icing on the Labour cake.

But I hope that the MP uses his unique status in the Labour Party to say privately to Mr Prescott that many of his colleagues are rightly in a state of blind panic over Iraq. Mr Prescott is one of those rare cabinet ministers who have always recognised that the tearoom tittle-tattle is the breeding ground for backbench panic. He circulates in the corridors and bars more than most of his colleagues, when his official duties permit. His acute sense of political smell should tell him that about 40 Labour MPs can look forward to only 12 more pay cheques.

In such an event there would still be a third-term Labour government, but it is the next block of MPs, with majorities of between 3,000 and 7,000, who are the most nervous. These are the MPs who are likely to wonder whether a new leader would make a difference. By definition they have a once-solid Labour base that is now deserting and defecting. Seats in this category, such as Brigg and Goole, and Cleethorpes, Immingham and Barton, which together formed my old constituency, already have Tory councils. The Immingham Labour Party, which provided my loyalist successor, Shona McIsaac, with her bedrock of votes is now in a state of civil war.

Here, Mr Prescott and Mr Knight might find that although the situation in Iraq may not be a doorstep issue, it has poisoned the trust of Labour stalwarts. And if Ms McIsaac were ever to panic then Mr Prescott would have no alternative but to say to Mr Blair: "No more, Prime Minister."

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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