When a columnist writes what I am about to write, many readers respond with a cynical yawn. "No doubt," they will think, "until the next one." This time, such readers would be wrong. Last week was one of the most remarkable weeks in British political history. Before it recedes into the general pre-election background noise, it should be savoured and recapitulated.
It all started very badly for the Tories. They had spent weeks planning the launch of their posters and manifesto material. So there was no excuse for the stumbles and mis-speaks. David Cameron took full responsibility, which was right and proper; can anyone imagine Gordon Brown behaving like that? But Mr Cameron's close advisers should all be embarrassed. There are two consolations. First, the lessons have been learned. Second, it is better to make mistakes at the beginning of January than in late April. Even so, there were a lot of jittery Tory MPs by Wednesday, especially after Gordon Brown gave a good performance at PM's Questions.
It is hard to exaggerate the dislike which the Prime Minister arouses among senior Labour figures. This explains an interesting phenomenon: the way in which most left-wing commentators have written off Gordon Brown. After all, Labour is only around 10 points behind: not an unbridgeable gap. But those who are closest to Mr Brown know too much about him. They can no longer take him seriously as a Prime Minister or an election-winner. If the Labour Cabinet could decide the outcome of the election in a secret ballot, there would be an overwhelming vote for a Cameron-led minority government, which they would hope to overthrow after they had sorted themselves out. Most of Mr Brown's own colleagues find him so impossible to work for that they cannot bear the thought of another Brown premiership. Working for Mr Brown is about as life-enhancing as working for Macbeth in Act V.
There are instructive comparisons. No one ever claimed that Margaret Thatcher was easy to work for. Few ministers were summoned to the presence without a tightening of the stomach muscles and echoes of the Prayer Book: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done." There was also the problem of her refusal to recognise demarcations. If you were the minister for sealing wax and she asked you about string, it would be no use pointing out that string was not in your department. She had to cover all the departments. Why should ministers be indulged in purblind idleness? On a bad day, she could be impossible. But there was always a consolation. Those who served Mrs Thatcher knew that they were helping to make history.
There were some individuals who could not stand her. Michael Heseltine walked out. Geoffrey Howe let his resentments fester until he could bear it no longer. Between the two of them, they eventually took their revenge. By the end of her premiership, other loyalties had worn thin. A number of Cabinet ministers thought that she was outliving her usefulness. But when it came to the fateful ballot which brought her down, no more than two Commons members of her Cabinet failed to support her. It is even possible that the whole lot voted for her.
Most of John Major's premiership was an unhappy period, for him and his party. But he retained the affection and respect of almost all his senior ministers, throughout his travails. Though there were outbreaks of exasperation, the prevailing mood was one of frustrated loyalty. How could the party be induced to stop destroying itself? How could the public be won over to the merits of a good and honourable man? It is probable that all Mr Major's Cabinet colleagues in the Commons voted for him in the – secret – re-election ballot of 1995 (Ministers in the Lords did not have a vote).
Loyalty, affection, respect, history: Gordon Brown has to make do with Balls. Even if Ed Balls did not share his master's charm, warmth, empathy and generosity of spirit, he would be shrewd enough to recognise that it is too late for him to distance himself from the current regime. He also needs to stick around to find out what Peter Mandelson is up to, which is an absorbing question. Although there may have been someone like him at Court in Versailles, Lord Mandelson's position is without precedent in British politics. He is the choreographer-in-chief, with the rest of the Cabinet as Mandy's marionettes, Mr Balls excepted. But where is this all leading?
In answering that, we should never discount Peter Mandelson's fascination with the political process, irrespective of its content. At times, it seems as if his whole soul has been sublimated into manoeuvring and manipulation. There is also Labour tribalism. Beyond that, everything becomes mysterious. At one moment, he seems determined to keep Gordon Brown afloat. Then, he tells some very important people that he has had it up to here with Gordon. One can only surmise.
My belief is that he has already written off the election and is devoting all his energies to the future. He will continue to work hard in the election campaign, to try to avoid a massacre and to ensure that he retains his current prestige: kingmakership beckons. There are those who believe that he is working for a Blairite restoration, and he is certainly determined to stop Ed Balls becoming leader. Yet it may be that a Blairite renewal is an oversimplification and that Peter's main aim is to keep the Labour party together.
Shrewd Tories are hoping that once Labour is in opposition, the divisions over policies and personalities will prove unmanageable, so that there will be another realignment of the Left, guaranteeing a prolonged period of Tory government. Peter agonised his way through the early Eighties, when a number of his friends joined the SDP. Instead of following them, he joined Neil Kinnock and began the process of turning the Labour party into the SDP. He does not want to spend the next 15 years repeating all that, so he will want a leader who can unify the party.
It is not clear who would receive his golden apple, and others will have their own plans. Assuming that Harriet Harman were to run, she might try to recruit Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas as lieutenants. If she were wise, she would also make overtures to Ed Miliband. If she could win all of them, she'd be hard to beat. Then again, Ed Balls regards himself as Gordon Brown's anointed heir. He has not yet realised how little influence Gordon's dying voice will have in a post-election Labour party. As for Miliband junior, he seems to be ahead in the Miliband family primary and might be tempted to have a crack, though his elder brother is not out of it.
Although David Miliband is the only man who tripped over a banana skin without opening the banana, events have been unfair to him. In retrospect, he should have resigned with James Purnell and had he done so, would probably now be PM. But one can understand his reluctance to rip the government apart. Like Macbeth, Gordon Brown would have fought to the end. Would anything have been left, except a blood-drenched stage? There is also Mr Purnell himself. What he did required courage. It seems unlikely that he took that risk merely to be someone else's attendant lord. We can only be certain of one point. Mandy will try his damnedest for his candidate, whoever that is.
Gordon Brown's attendant lords should have an easier time of it for the next few days. Gordon has promised to be more collegiate. When talking to Harriet Harman, his staff are to mind their manners. When the PM speaks to Cabinet Ministers, there is to be no more "The devil damn thee back, thou cream-faced loon. Where got'st thou that goose look?" We shall see. We shall also see how this broken government and sociopathic Prime Minister propose to present themselves as electable. If they go on as they are, for "electable" read "risible".
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