Leading article: Mr Brown's unexpected electoral legacy

Related Topics

It had been just another hung-parliament day of clandestine comings and goings, more carefully worded communiqués, and further rounds of quibbling about small print. Then Gordon Brown emerged from No 10 and, with a brisk five-minute statement, changed the whole nature of the game.

In announcing his intention to resign as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, Mr Brown bowed to the inevitable. He had led his party to defeat in the election; until a late rally in the final days, he had fought a lacklustre campaign. That he was still in Downing Street at all reflected the constitutional perversity of a result that had produced no overall majority. Until someone can cobble together a majority – or the Conservatives are left to try their luck as a minority government – Mr Brown has little choice but to soldier on.

The accusation that he was a "squatter" in his own home was partisan mischief-making of the first order – but mischief-making that clearly hurt. In spelling out that he would depart, once there was a new government and a new party leader, he may have sought to dispel the image of a lonely autocrat stubbornly clinging on to power. Without doubt, though, he also sought to pre-empt those on his own side calling for him to leave.

In one way, this represented a return to the natural order of things. Here was the concession that a defeated party leader is expected to make in the early hours of the morning after the election. Without a clear result, this was not possible. Even so the acceptance of defeat could be said to have come four days late.

Yet no one can reproach Mr Brown with casually throwing away the little political capital that remained to him. The timing of his declared political hara-kiri was exquisite; it instantaneously upset calculations about a Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance that were starting to be taken for granted. Gordon Brown can truly be said to have sacrificed himself for his party.

With Mr Brown's days in office now officially numbered – though perhaps not as few as his detractors had hoped – everything is suddenly back in play. And that includes an arrangement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats and the few others needed to form what would essentially be an anti-Conservative government – or, as Mr Brown called it, a "progressive" alliance.

That many Liberal Democrats are more comfortable with the idea of joining Labour, rather than the Conservatives, has always been clear. The term "progressive" has its appeal. But Nick Clegg was taking a pragmatic, as well as principled, approach in allowing the Conservatives to get their courtship in first. The arithmetic was unambiguous: only the Conservatives could form a majority with the Liberal Democrats. If either the Liberal Democrats or Labour had done just a little better than they did last Thursday, Mr Clegg would have had more options in his aspirations to be kingmaker.

Yet the overriding question for the Liberal Democrats was – quite rightly – how much real ground Mr Cameron would give on their central issue: electoral reform. It was all very well for the Conservative leader and his lieutenants to keep citing the "national interest", but the election, and even more its fractured result, conclusively made the case for reform being in the national interest, too.

That his party held the balance of power gave Mr Clegg an opportunity that arises only once, if that, in a generation. Thanks largely now to Gordon Brown, that opportunity is still there. Last night, the Conservatives produced their "final offer" – a referendum on AV, the least ambitious electoral reform introducing the alternative vote. Mr Clegg is entitled to see whether Labour is prepared to offer something better.

Lord Ashdown described Mr Clegg's dilemma as "a deliciously painful torture mechanism", and he was not far wrong. But it has been eased, just a little, by Mr Brown's resignation. He now has more to gain and less to lose, whatever choice he makes.

As Prime Minister, Mr Brown made many mistakes. He was elevated without a leadership contest; he ducked holding an election to legitimise his position, and he did not cede power when it could have improved Labour's election chances. But the manner of his departure suddenly opens up British politics. It is a timely and fitting bequest.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'