Leading article: Personal attacks and backbiting will only alienate the electorate

Discipline within the Labour Party has broken down. A government long criticised for 'control freakery' is allowing events to run out of control
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Of all the misjudged and damaging interventions of this tumultuous week in British politics, Charles Clarke's highly personal attack yesterday on Gordon Brown was - by some distance - the most foolish. The former Home Secretary was scathingly critical in a newspaper interview of Mr Brown for being photographed smiling when he left Downing Street on Wednesday at the height of the crisis engulfing Tony Blair. According to Mr Clarke this was "stupid, a stupid, stupid thing to do".

Surely what is "stupid" from a Labour Party perspective under the present circumstances is to launch such an insulting attack on the most likely next leader of the country. For what could possibly help the resurgent Conservative Party more? David Cameron's camp is already preparing its strategy of portraying Mr Brown as an awkward and peculiar figure in the run-up to the next general election. Now a senior figure in the Labour Party such as Mr Clarke is providing them with ammunition.

We are in the same territory with this latest insult from Mr Clarke as the old calumny that Mr Brown is "psychologically flawed". It is interesting to note that those who have attacked the Chancellor recently - most of them anonymously - have made no mention of specific policies or points of disagreement. They have merely lashed out on a personal basis.

Mr Clarke also used his interview to question whether the Chancellor has yet earned the right to lead Labour and suggested that someone such as the former Health Secretary Alan Milburn is "leadership material". As the Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly put it yesterday: "I don't think Charles' views represent the vast majority of my colleagues." This is surely an understatement. There is little sign that those within the Labour Party who seem to want to stop Mr Brown from succeeding Mr Blair, or to undermine him fatally before he does so, have substantial popular backing in the party.

Mr Brown, despite his shadowy role in some of Labour's more unseemly outbreaks of civil strife, is an infinitely more impressive figure than so-called "Blairite outriders" such as Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers. One would be hard pressed to name a significant political achievement of either of these two. And one wonders what gives Mr Clarke - a minister who was humiliatingly sacked as Home Secretary only four months ago after a disappointing time in office - the right to give Mr Brown lectures on his "fitness" for the top job.

This is all a reflection of how discipline within the Labour Party has broken down. It is inconceivable that such an ill-disguised power struggle would have occurred in the early years of the New Labour "project" when the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell were working behind the scenes. The rivalries were no less fierce, but there was an understanding of what was at stake. Now a government long criticised for its "control freakery" is allowing events to run out of control.

Will this do any long-term damage to the party's prospects of retaining power? Unlike the Conservatives in the wake of Margaret Thatcher's ejection from Downing Street, there are no equivalent ideological splits within Labour. This conflict is more about personalities than policies. That could be a substantial boon to Labour. For once the transition has been accomplished, it should be relatively simple to push ahead with government business without the constant threat of splits and rebellion that bedevilled the final years of John Major's government. Yet the danger, increasing by the day, is that the transition will be so bloody that resentment will linger in the party long after Mr Blair has departed. It is also growing more likely that Mr Brown will face a challenge from a serious contender when Mr Blair does step down.

Thursday's statement by the Prime Minister admitting that the next Labour Party conference will be his last as leader should have led to a period of calm. Mr Clarke's intervention has upset that - although not disastrously. But we should recognise that there are numerous flashpoints approaching, beginning with the TUC conference.

And Mr Blair's promise to depart by next summer is going to make it increasingly difficult for Downing Street to hold the line. What, people are bound to ask, can he possibly achieve in such a relatively short space of time? What is the point of Mr Blair setting out new policies when he will not be in a position to implement them? Mr Blair may well be tempted to fall back on foreign policy as a theme to define the final months of his premiership, starting with today's visit to the Middle East. But this has been the source of his domestic unpopularity. Emphasising his role on the world stage could be even more destabilising for the Prime Minister. The Parliamentary Labour Party, in particular, is unlikely to want to be reminded of Mr Blair's overly close links with President Bush.

All that is certain is that there are likely to be further eruptions from supporters of both Mr Blair and Mr Brown. The pressure will mount on the Prime Minister to go immediately, while Mr Brown will inevitably be labelled as "Old Labour", despite the fact that he was one of the architects of New Labour and has proved himself in office.

The issue for the various warring factions is whether at the end of the process, however long it takes, they want a Labour Party that is in a good position to win the next election. This will clearly depend on some factors out of their control, such as the performance of the other political parties. But entirely within their control is whether Labour degenerates into a frenzy of recrimination and backbiting in a way that alienates the electorate.

It is perfectly legitimate for Mr Brown's internal critics to engage in a debate with him about the future of the Government and the Labour Party, but personal attacks serve no one's true interests. His opponents must focus more on what their alternative ideas are, if they have them. Let the name-calling be left in the playground.