Leading article: A strengthened party leader but a diminished PM

Defeat of the coup plotters has not restored Gordon Brown's authority

Monday 11 January 2010 01:00

The Parliamentary Labour Party meets today in an atmosphere further poisoned by the failed Hoon-Hewitt coup against the Prime Minister's leadership. The phrase "in office but not in power" appears peculiarly appropriate to Gordon Brown who has emerged from last week's events confirmed as leader of the Labour Party yet at the same time a diminished figure. The fact that he gave an interview at the weekend whose only point was to stress that he was still in charge undermined the strength of that assertion.

The "Hoonwitt" affair, meanwhile, has made the splits in the Cabinet that much more visible. By weakening the Prime Minister's authority with respect to that of several of his chief barons, it has also undermined Mr Brown's ability to send a coherent message to the electorate in the months leading up to the next election.

Apparent confusion over whether Labour advocates rigorous spending cuts, increases in public spending, or both at the same time, is not lost on the public. Such mixed messages will not do the party any good as time runs out for the Labour Party to close the gap in the polls with David Cameron's Conservatives.

Intriguing as Labour's internal turmoil is for political watchers, who will find many analogies to Mr Brown's plight in classical and Shakespearean dramas, the coming period between now and May – or whenever Mr Brown calls an election – is likely to hold damaging consequences for the country.

Previous experience has shown that while Mr Brown fights best, and with brutal effectiveness, when cornered, it also brings out in him the complete politician in the purest and worst sense of the term. A Brown engaged in an almost continual, no-holds-barred struggle against his own mutinous cabinet, not to mention the opposition, can be expected to say or do almost anything if it assists his survival.

This will be an even more interfering Prime Minister than usual, stamping his authority on government departments for the sake of it. As for the more collegiate style of cabinet government that we have been told Mr Brown has assented to, that is unlikely to last long.

Whatever parade is made at the PLP meeting today of a new "team" approach, involving an increased role in the forthcoming election campaign for Harriet Harman, Lord Mandelson and Douglas Alexander, a more genuinely collegial approach to government looks impractical in the circumstances of a Cabinet in which so many leading figures are divided from one another by feelings of mutual suspicion.

In the meantime, we may expect a rash of meaningless initiatives designed to seize headlines rather than statesmanlike decisions that take the long view. The most statesmanlike of all decisions that could be made right now, of course, would be to call an early general election, not least so that the next Budget could be drawn up by a government that felt less desperate about its prospects and in consequence was less inclined to play the populist card.

That is unlikely now. Having survived various attempted defenestrations, Mr Brown looks more resolved than ever to stick it out to the end. The Prime Minister has also indicated that he intends to bring in another Budget before the election. Such a Budget can have only one purpose: to help Mr Brown win that election. That might suit Mr Brown's electoral purpose but will not help the good running of the country.

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