Alan Johnson’s lack of leadership ambition is inexcusable

There is nothing charming about a gifted, hugely popular politican preferring the sidelines

Matthew Norman
Sunday 12 October 2014 22:32 BST
Alan Johnson is set for a frontline role in the next general election
Alan Johnson is set for a frontline role in the next general election (Abbie Trayler-Smith)

Was there ever a more infuriating politician than Alan Johnson? At first glance, the question may strike you as unusually idiotic, even for this page.

Superficially, there has seldom been a less aggravating political presence than the Labour modfather with the enduring fantasy of rock stardom and the compelling “narrative” about surmounting a wretchedly deprived childhood to climb almost to the pinnacle of the Westminster mountain. But it’s the “almost” that does you in.

When Labour comes calling in a fit of pre-election panic, the postman always wrings his hands twice and tells it to sod off. For the second time in five years, with Ed Miliband polling as a less credible PM-in-waiting than athlete’s foot (let alone Michael Foot), the Labour leadership and a probable general election victory is Johnners’s for the asking. And again, as in 2009 with a mortally wounded Gordon Brown, he recoils like an Edwardian maiden propositioned en route to evensong by the village swingers.

Interviewed in The Sunday Times, he says he doesn’t want the leadership, and regards being prime minister as a “God awful job”. However artfully disguised in the clothes of being a normal bloke, the diffidence is peculiar. A man who progressed from stacking Tesco shelves to hold five Cabinet posts cannot be innately bereft of ambition. The hunch is that Johnners is crippled by the wildly misplaced sense of intellectual inferiority suffered by even the brightest of people who missed out on higher education.

Whatever the explanation, his disengagement is hard to excuse. Offered the chance to steer his party into what would, under his leadership, be an eminently winnable general election, and so prevent the Tories entrenching the misery of the working poor and their children, he finds his dilettantism adorable. It isn’t. There is nothing charming about a gifted, hugely popular politican preferring the sidelines (for all that he may, as this paper reports elsewhere today, have some nebulous campaign role) to battling for the beliefs that drove him into politics in the first place.

If history remembers him as one of the great lost leaders alongside Denis Healey and Ken Clarke, history will be an ass. Those bruisers fought for the prize and lost. Johnners prefers to strum, a bit like an earlier keen player of a stringed instrument, while his party burns.

Elder statesmen need to brush on up their Milibands

Whatever his dolours, Ed Miliband can console himself that he has made an indelible impression on parliamentary elder statesmen.

On Friday, both David Owen and Ken Clarke referred to him as “David Miliband” in interviews, on Radio 5 Live and C4 News respectively, without being corrected.

If Little Ed fancies a battery-recharging Christmas break in the US, he is advised to eschew New York – where the sound of his elder brother cackling with glee might be distressing – for Boston. Apparently there’s a bar there where everybody knows your name.

I’d put Jack Straw at the top of my likely defectors list

Douglas Carswell reports being called the day after his triumph in Clacton by a Labour MP on the verge of defecting.

But whoever can it be? The finger of suspicion falls first on Austin Mitchell, the retiring member for Grimsby. Other suspects may include Simon Danczuk, whose missus continues to festoon social media with selfies of her capacious chest.

But despite Danczuk’s Faragiste bleatings about metropolitan elites and the wickedness of mass immigration, and although his Rochdale seat looks vulnerable to Ukip, he insists that he would not switch “in a million years”.

My own preference is for Jack Straw, who now believes the government he served with such lack of distinction made a “spectacular mistake” on immigration.

Joining a party committed to scrapping human-rights legislation would be a seemly end to a serpentine career which will be recalled for his presumed role, when Home Secretary, in facilitating the rendition of a dissident Libyan and his wife to the torture chambers of Colonel Gaddafi.

Has Hunt had his final say on homeopathy?

Splendid to see Jeremy Hunt resolving a misconception in a questionnaire with Independent readers. Invited to explain his support for homeopathy despite the unquestionable evidence that it is total cobblers, the Health Secretary replied: “I’m glad to clear this up. I’m not a supporter of homeopathy.”

This is not the first time he has been crystal clear on the matter.

“I … have to disagree with you on this issue,” he once wrote to a constituent who posed the same question. “Homeopathic care is enormously valued by thousands of people, and… it ought to be available where a doctor and patient believe [it] may be of benefit.”

I trust this clears it up once and for all.

This particular Brand of revolution regards itself as the chosen one

Russell Brand’s metamorphosis into Wolfie Smith gathers pace. Plugging a new book, Brand allays fears that he has replaced the heroin with a barely less addictive drug called Messiah. Precisely how the sworn enemy of the ballot box means to rescue the populace from enslavement remains tantalisingly obscure, but there is no doubting his commitment to restoring power to the people.

“I want to address the alienation and sense of despair that you see all around us,” he tells The Guardian.

“Everyone’s had enough, so it don’t matter to me how much people have a go at me, because I live in the world and walk around, and people are going: ‘Well done, Russell, well done, son.’”

Doesn’t it sound intoxicating?

“I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready to die for this. Yeah, I’m ready to die for it.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that because, beneath the deranged grandiosity, there is something oddly engaging about Brand. So viva la revoluçion! And viva Fey Guevara!

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