Gordon Brown and the "cast-iron guarantee"

Will the Prime Minister be leading Labour into the next election?

Tomorrow's relaunched issue of the New Statesman includes our exclusive interview with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, ahead of the G20 meeting of world leaders in Pittsburgh on Thursday and the Labour party conference in Brighton, from 27 September.

Inevitably, given Brown's current problems, my colleague James Macintyre and I had to ask the Prime Minister "the leadership question" -- will he stay or will he go? (Charles Clarke has a suggestion.)

From the transcript, here's what we asked (and note the PM's precise and parsed answers):

Just returning to something you said earlier about "you've got a job to do": you are obviously close to this Labour party conference coming up. Can you give the British public, New Statesman readers et cetera, a cast-iron guarantee that you will be the man leading the Labour Party into the next election?

I hope people will see by my actions the determination I have to work not just for the Labour Party, but work on behalf of the British people. It's typical sometimes to explain how resolute I am about the challenges ahead. I think by describing the future as I see it and being pretty straightforward with you about parties that duck the big choices and don't make them, and a party like ours that is prepared to make the big choices, I think you see where I am trying to take the country. So I am pretty determined and resolute.

Prime Minister, if you believed that another candidate was better suited to lead the party to success in the election, would you stand aside?

That's not the issue at the moment. The issue at the moment is that the Labour Party has to take this country through a very difficult time. I think we'll be judged by results but I think we made the right choices. This is the time for us [to show] the party not really what we've done, but what we're going to do together for the future.

This is the party you've loved and believed in. If you felt that there was someone else better - In other words, are you going to stay on because you think you're the right man?

Look at what I'm doing. I tried to deal with the financial collapse in a way that showed that Britain was leading the world and taking these problems seriously and helping people not just in Britain, but around the world. I've tried to bring the world together in the G20. These are the things that I have tried to do and have been able to do, and I think the global economy and how we deal with it, and how Britain fares in it, how the jobs and the mortgages and the savings and businesses in Britain can thrive in the future, is, I think, still the central issue. I think my credentials for dealing with that issue are very strong.

There have been one or two rebellions that have failed. The cabinet seems to have rallied behind you. Going into conference, isn't it right you give a message you are going on until the election?

But I've given that message.

But you haven't actually said explicitly that you will be leader until the election.

Of course I'm going on. I mean, for goodness' sake, I wouldn't be having this interview with you if I wasn't determined to get my message across to the British people.

No, of course. Millions of people buy the Mail on Sunday and see Adam Boulton's book saying Tony Blair says you're a quitter, you're going to duck the next election, you're not a fighter.

I don't think Tony Blair has ever said that. I think you've got to be pretty certain about what I'm saying - explaining my answer in different ways - that we've got a big job of work to do. It is very important that we see it through.

So, our questions to Gordon Brown raise a further set of questions:

* Why did the Prime Minister not give that explicit, "cast-iron" guarantee that we asked for - on whether he would lead Labour into the general election next year?
* When asked whether he would stand aside for a better candidate, why did the PM answer: "That's not the issue at the moment"? So when does it become the issue, as Sky's Joey Jones puts it?
* Who's right on whether or not Blair called Brown a "quitter"? Gordon Brown or Adam Boulton?

You can read our full interview with the Prime Minister in tomorrow's magazine -- as well my new Dissident Voice column, in which I take apart Britain's right-wing echo chamber.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Power-sharing and devolved rule are under threat. What's going on? Ciara Dunne explains. 

The UUP will formalise their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland executive on Saturday. The DUP then announced that it may consider voting to remove Sinn Fein from the executive effectively ending or at least suspending devolution. This is due to a statement by PSNI chief constable George Hamilton stating that former IRA member Kevin McGuigan may have been murdered by people connected to the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However Hamilton also stressed that there was no evidence to prove that the murder occurred due to PIRA orders and there are claims that it was a personal vendett.

The UUP declaring that they will withdraw from the Executive is not particularly destructive. They only have one minister and their vote share has been steadily declining since they signed the Good Friday Agreement to the benefit of the DUP. By acting so dramatically, they run the risk of this seeming like the death rattle of a party trying to remain relevant in a world so different from its heyday rather than a principled stand to protect the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement.

Nesbitt voiced disgust that the IRA was still in existence. However the IRA is not one group and many of its splinter groups such as the Continuity IRA (CIRA) and Real IRA (RIRA) didn’t sign up to the Good Friday Agreement and have been active since it. They were not the only paramilitary groups that did not sign up, fragments of extremism have existed since the PIRA decommissioned and it seems likely that they incorporated those who had been PIRA members who were disillusioned by the agreement. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach and Good Friday Agreement negotiator, explained while the PIRA had to decommission as part of the agreement, for various reasons it was allowed to exist in a non-armed state. News of its existence shouldn’t come as a shock to the only major unionist party that engaged in Good Friday Agreement negotiations. If the PIRA were proved to be armed and active then this response would be understandable but that is not the case.

What this stand does however give the UUP is a unique selling point compared to theirwe rivals the DUP and it can somewhat tackle the perception some have that the UUP betrayed the unionist community when it agreed to work with Sinn Féin in government.

The DUP has been less drastic. Although they have stated that they would consider pulling out of government, they have described it as temporary suspension of government rather than a total breakdown of trust. Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP, said that if they are to continue to power share with Sinn Féin, they must ensure the PIRA issue dealt with ‘in terms that gives everyone the reassurance that this isn’t going to happen again’. This is a reasonable request and something Sinn Féin must do. They should be unwavering in their condemnation of any paramilitary organisations. However so far they haven’t done otherwise, several senior figures have denied that the PIRA have rearmed. Pearse Doherty, a prominent Sinn Féin TD, insisted that when it came to the IRA “the war is over, they’re not coming back”.

The best way to tackle paramilitaries is to tackle the reasons people joined them. This can be done not by threatening to withdraw from the government but standing together against sectarianism. Parties must ensure that there is a functioning government that works for the good of everyone and gives people a genuine stake in society. It is important that representatives of both communities condemn paramilitaries, in actions as well as words. All parties will soon have the opportunity to move away from old associations, as the old guard age and move aside and the younger members who are untainted by such associations, take charge of the party.

However, it is vital that parties take a considered stance in anything controversial for this to work. In this case, it is not yet certain whether the connections are historical or current. Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan has stated she has no reason to believe that the PIRA are active in the military sense. Bertie Ahern pointed out that it is possible that ‘these atrocities are being done [by those] who might have been on the inside but are now long since on the outside?’ Political posturing could have terrible consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, especially if results in a party with a large electoral mandate being removed from government when there is no proof it has broken the agreement.

If the UUP and the DUP are truly concerned, a more constructive reaction is to push for the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The IMC monitored paramilitary activity from 2004 to 2011 and its final report stated that ‘transition from conflict is a long slow process’. This latest incident shows this is true and it is likely that the IMC was disbanded too soon. Reconvening the IMC would offer a way to monitor paramilitary activity and to find patterns and evidence rather than allowing a single incident to destroy progress. If reconvened however it should address the issues that resulted in Sinn Féin’s criticism of the body. A more balanced panel, one agreed by all parties, would address this, the previous one was described as three spooks and a lord, but would still add value to the peace process.

If political parties pull out of the power sharing agreement over an incident that the police have not yet connecting to a sophisticated paramilitary organisation with political connections, they are handing extremism a victory while taking democratic choice away from the people of Northern Ireland. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have been clear, both in referendum and in their actions, they want peace and stability. If the parties of Northern Ireland don’t fight to protect this then they are betraying everyone who believed in the Good Friday Agreement and reconciliation.