The start of the holiday season announced itself with cheerful pictures of the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, strolling with their respective spouses beside the sea. In Gordon Brown's case, the contrast between the pictures and the words, however, could not have been greater. While the pictures conveyed the image of a national leader taking a well-deserved summer break, the words were a clamour of calls for him to recognise that his days in power were numbered and that he should do the decent thing and quit. The majority of them came, directly or indirectly, from among his own MPs.
Few, of course, were prepared to put their names to their individual and collective votes of no confidence. Gordon Prentice, MP for Pendle, was an honourable exception. Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB union, was another who dared to put his head above the parapet. For the most part, though, this was a whispering campaign of anonymous briefings and rumour, given new impetus by the disaster of Labour's defeat at Glasgow East.
Largely anonymous it might have been, but it was – and remains – seditious. So much was clear from the heavy guns belatedly mobilised by the party hierarchy in Mr Brown's defence. The Justice Secretary Jack Straw was among the most significant, for the simple reason that he had been named among rumoured plotters. But the Cabinet minister Ed Miliband also manned the barricades, along with the Schools Secretary Ed Balls, noted Brownites both. And John Prescott – from whom we have not heard for a while – added his sonorous tones to the mix.
By yesterday, the party seemed to have cobbled together an authorised line, as articulated by the deputy leader Harriet Harman. Having worked with him for 25 years, she said, "I can recognise that I don't think the British people have seen the best of him yet as Prime Minister ... But the reason I so strongly support him is because the big problems people are facing in this country at this moment are the economy, the cost of fuel and food prices ... He is the solution, not the problem."
The top job
Now it is possible to take issue with Ms Harman's praise for Mr Brown and her judgement that he is the solution not the problem. His decade at the Treasury already looks substantially less impressive than it did even a year ago. And even if he was just as distinguished a Chancellor as his admirers believed him to be, this did not mean he would necessarily be cut out for the top job. The qualities required of a prime minister are different from those required to run the nation's finances.
The fact remains, though, that it is less than 14 months since the Labour hierarchy, in its wisdom, agreed to pass up the chance of a leadership election and speed Gordon Brown, unopposed, into Number 10. After the years of divisive Blair-Brown rivalry, the party settled for a smooth transition and a show of party unity above the messy business of a contest. And for three months they felt vindicated, as Mr Brown's approval ratings soared – largely, it is now clear, due to a string of good luck that has since evaded him. Hubris spawned the infamous non-election, and since then it has been downhill – all the way to Glasgow East.
It is all very well now for MPs to rue the lack of a contest for the leadership and wish they had someone else at the helm; someone more charismatic, more attuned to the public mood, and more effective as a crisis-manager. But they, of all people, should have known Mr Brown's weaknesses, and he is the same person now as he was then. At very least, they have a duty – to the party and, above all, to an increasingly dispirited country – to help address the anxieties of ordinary people.
You do not hear much about solidarity these days. But those who have been fanning the flames of regicide should be ashamed. If ever Labour ministers and MPs should be showing some good old-fashioned loyalty, it is now. The problems facing Britain today are bigger than Mr Brown and they are bigger than Glasgow East. They demand unity of purpose before all else. Even then, the Prime Minister may not succeed, but this is least of all a time when his own side should be setting him up to fail.