A week truly like no other. It began, as throughout the past month, with a rack of headlines about greedy MPs; and ended with Gordon Brown standing shoulder to shoulder with D-Day veterans on the Normandy beaches. In between came the most tumultuous, tortuous and unpredictable machinations of the modern political era: the departure of six cabinet ministers; the return to the Cabinet of Peter Hain and Tessa Jowell; three peers; four women, the lowest number since the days of John Major; and the survival, just, by the skin of his polished veneers of the Prime Minister. Whew!
In this seething cauldron of volatile poisons, all remains possible. Just as received wisdom on Thursday, as rumours of an imminent Cabinet resignation swirled, suggested that Gordon Brown would be finished if these proved to be true, so the departure of James Purnell, following those of Beverley Hughes, Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears, was shown to mark nothing of the sort. The last to go, Caroline Flint, looked rather silly as her charge of Mr Brown's sexism, which could be justified, turned into a complaint of "Me, me, me." At the end of Friday, the Prime Minister was probably strengthened. It may be that tonight's European Parliament election results will set off renewed hostilities. Or, more likely, the festering boil has been lanced, only to re-erupt by the autumn. No one can be sure, but what we can do is cut through the confusion.
There is, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg argue forcefully – and opportunistically – a strong argument for a general election now. Give the public their say in the expenses scandal, and only then, they argue, can the rebuilding of faith in politics begin. We can see the logic in that – though there is the more important issue of who is best to deal with the economic crisis, an issue which will surely resonate at a more personal level with voters if their jobs are at risk, or their homes likely to be repossessed. We remain of the view that, on balance, Mr Brown remains the best leader to tackle the difficulties posed by what may be the deepest recession in 60 years.
What we cannot grasp, though, is the logic of the rebel Labour MP, actual or potential, who is considering dumping Mr Brown. Unless, that is, one assumes that they are acting not for the national good, but out of narrow self-interest – the type of selfishness that has been illuminated by the saga of MPs' expenses. But even if they are acting out of fear for their own future employment, it is a miscalculation.
Should Labour backbenchers dump Brown now and replace him with, say, Alan Johnson, whom we rather like, and then fight an early general election (for with or without a written constitution, that is what would have to happen)? Do they really want to fight a campaign that might be dominated by the issue of expenses, which is hurting Labour, as the party of government, disproportionately? Or should they stick with the Prime Minister in the hope that there are green shoots in the economy that by next May will have borne fruit?
Labour may well be doomed next year, but is the case for dumping Brown now really so overwhelming as to justify an early general election with potentially catastrophic consequences? Mr, Mrs or Ms Rebel, we suggest not.
There is another view among you, of course. That Labour risks wipe-out, and that, instead of losing by hundreds of seats, you might lose only, say, 40 under a Johnson leadership. That is self-interested in the extreme – and what Labour backbenchers should be concentrating on is in helping Britain through the recession.
And what of the results so far? Lamentable for Labour, but no great shakes for the Conservatives either. Despite everything that has happened, and a ferocious media narrative of Mr Brown's uselessness, the projection from the county council elections is for a Cameron majority at a general election of just 22 seats. Might that suggest the game is still live, that there is something yet to play for?
We accept Gordon Brown has little in the way of easy charm, at least in performing his public duties. We accept that his tactical abilities are suspect and that he is struggling with a grand vision. What we reject is the Labour rebel calculation that to dump him benefits their party, or the nation's economy.
We look forward to a general election next year, when steps have been taken to restore some faith in democracy, and, we hope, we are through the worst of the recession. And on that level playing field, we will all have to consider carefully how we will cast our votes.Reuse content