Alan Watkins: There is defeat, and there is crushing defeat

By calling an early election, Gordon Brown can save his party from total ignominy and leave No 10 with his head held high

Sunday 04 January 2009 01:00

The story goes, which I have no reason to disbelieve, that the leaders of the opposition parties or their representatives have been having talks with civil servants about what might happen if a change of government came about in 2009. The "guidance" given to the press was that the practice had originated with Sir Alec Douglas-Home before the 1964 election.

This was certainly so in that year. But before previous elections, there must have been preliminary discussions before a new government took office. In 1950-51, for instance, there was a general assumption in Whitehall and the Palace that the Labour government "could not last" and that the Conservatives would shortly be in power.

In 1964 the assumption was the other way. Harold Wilson might soon be in office and do all manner of exciting – even alarming – things. The civil servants were particularly exercised by the creation of a new Department of Economic Affairs at the expense of the Treasury. It did not last long. Dust and ashes!

The connected problem was the date of the general election. It was connected because the civil servants were becoming restive, could not settle to anything, in those uncertain times; or so their knighted superiors claimed.

Sir Alec, as prime minister, tried to calm their fears. After a long-running debate between the respective supporters of June and October, the then prime minister announced in April that he "intended to carry on the government until the last month of its legal life". The announcement, he said, "would steady confidence, for the public media had been carrying on a running speculation which was unsettling to everyone".

Mr Gordon Brown is unlikely to emulate Sir Alec. He encouraged speculation about an election and it nearly cost him his job. Well, he was fairly safe really, as I wrote at the time – it was other people who wrote that he was about to lose his job – but he had to endure an uncomfortable and even humiliating year.

In the end it was Mr David Miliband who was humiliated by being photographed clutching a banana, a cheap, nutritious, delicious, and formerly scarce fruit. It was the subject of one of Lord Kinnock's best remarks as a member of the House of Commons.

Backbench Tory: What did you ever do for your country?

Kinnock: I went without bananas for my country.

A banana, and a financial crisis, improved Mr Brown's prospects no end. Just as he was foolish to encourage speculation in his first few months, so is he now being prudent – it is the only limited aspect of his former economic character which he displays – about an election this year. Mr Brown does not wish to discuss elections, not even to exclude the prospect, as Douglas-Home did 45 years ago.

A sub-Churchillian reference, such as he employed in his New Year message – "... see us through ... will finish the job ... great country ..." – is sufficient for present purposes, chiefly those of remaining in office.

Mr Brown can stay in No 10 till June 2010 (for some reason which I have now forgotten, an extra month is available in a five-year term). Sir John Major went the full term in 1997, as Sir Alec did in 1964; James Callaghan might have done the same in 1979, if Margaret Thatcher had not moved her vote of confidence in March.

All prime ministers are remarkably

vain about their place in the record books. With the longest possible length of service before an election, Mr Brown would have beaten Neville Chamberlain (just), Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Anthony Eden, Douglas-Home and Andrew Bonar Law.

An election in, say, May this year would bring Mr Brown only just above Eden in the length of service stakes. And do prime ministers bother their heads with such matters? They do, they do, all the time.

Mr Brown might, however, try to save his party, not simply from defeat. He might suffer a worse defeat still if he were to go on and on. This theory is gaining acceptance or, at any rate, a certain plausibility in government circles. Far better, these Labour people say, for Mr Brown to take an exalted post in the World Bank or some body of that kind after saving his party by maintaining a respectable, though not a winning, position.

Our old friend the hung parliament has even been putting in an appearance. Mr Nick Clegg had, by all accounts, been invited to join talks with these anonymous civil servants. And he had accepted; whereas his predecessors had refused.

The deduction drawn from this story was that those lost leaders had sedulously refused to be drawn on the terms and conditions for co-operation – my colleagues in the political press insist on calling it "coalition" – which the Liberal Democrats might demand. In fact an earlier generation of leaders, such as David Owen, David Steele and Paddy Ashdown had talked of little else. Charles Kennedy, true, kept quiet. But Menzies Campbell devoted a whole speech at Perth to the subject; omitting, however, to mention electoral reform.

A spokesman for Mr Clegg indicated afterwards that naturally electoral reform would have been discussed, together with other weighty matters. But no further and better particulars were supplied. The suspicion arises that an attempt is being made to build up Mr Clegg's importance in what has not been a spectacularly successful year for him.

There was a separate and more clumsy attempt to exalt Mr Clegg at the expense of Dr Vince Cable. This was in a poll conducted among Liberal Democrats, the origins of which remained obscure. The conclusion appeared to be that more people had heard of Dr Cable than they had of Mr Clegg, which was a pity, but there it was.

So, at last, we come to Mr David Cameron. He must be linked to Mr George Osborne, for he has had more bumps on the Westminster funfair than Mr Cameron has had. One of the features of the year was the wondering awe which Lord Mandelson aroused in the inhabitants of the Palace of Westminster. After Mr Nat Rothschild reported Mr Osborne speaking ill of Lord Mandelson, it was Lord Mandelson who was credited, if that is the word, for exacting revenge. Is there no limit to the man's Mephistophelian ingenuity?

Mr Osborne came through with some outstanding parliamentary performances, difficult in the circumstances. He and Mr Cameron still do not manage to carry conviction, hence the demand for the recall of Mr Kenneth Clarke, which was reinforced last week by the call (by an even bigger majority in a poll of Tory activists) for a return of Mr David Davis. My guess is that, while Mr Clarke might do something to cheer us all up, Mr Davis would cause more trouble for his colleagues than for the Government.

With many doubts and hesitations along the way, Mr Cameron has found a path with many overhanging branches. He started out, at the party conference, on the national unity route. Mr Brown did not exactly spurn his offer: instead, he gave an impression of endless activity. The effects were terrific, smoke billowing, sparks flying. Alas, the effects have died down, and Mr Brown is still in office, though he may have an election after all.

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