Alan Johnson isn’t going to be the next Labour leader

The reports and rumours swirling around the Westminster village are ridiculous.

Left Foot Forward's Will Straw had a very interesting piece on the Guardian's Comment Is Free site a couple of weeks of ago:

The hysteria about Ed Miliband's leadership has revealed a truth about modern politics. Unless a leader is riding 20 points high in the polls, speculation will mount about their fitness for the job. The attention deficit disorder of the media and political class has delivered ten party leaders (including caretakers) in the last five years.

That, my friends, is a startling stat (the full list: Michael Howard, David Cameron, Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell, Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Ed Miliband). He went on:

Never mind that Miliband is only eight weeks into the job. Never mind that the timing of his paternity leave came during an unfortunately busy period. Never mind that Labour is robustly above 40 per cent in the polls with a lead as wide as 5 points recorded in one. And never mind that Miliband's net approval rating at +9 is ahead of where David Cameron was at this stage in his leadership.

Yep, "never mind" indeed. The navel-gazers in the PLP and the hysteria-mongers in the lobby would rather obsess over and gossip about the supposed "fallout" for Miliband's leadership from a single Today programme interview and a lacklustre performance at last week's Prime Minister's Questions.

Meanwhile, Miliband's shadow chancellor, the plain-speaking ex-postie Alan Johnson, continues his one-man campaign to undermine the Labour leader who placed such faith and hope in him. I wrote in a recent column in the magazine:

There are divisions inside the shadow cabinet but these can be exaggerated. I'm told that the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, has offered "private assurances" to the Labour leader that he was not "stirring things up" with his recent comments on the 50p tax rate.

I had been willing to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt; I like him as a person and admire him as a politician, even if he and I do disagree on civil liberties, the 50p tax, tuition fees, etc. But his comments to Mary Riddell in yesterday's Telegraph had me groaning and must have had Ed M tearing his hair out:

"The fact that no one's introduced a graduate tax doesn't mean it can't be done."

But he doesn't think it possible? "Well, I don't think it could [work]. Frankly, there's a difference of view."

Here is the most senior member of the shadow cabinet pooh-poohing a signature policy advocated by the leader of the party: "I don't think it could [work]." That's just great (!)

As even the Spectator's James Forsyth pointed out:

Johnson is abusing the trust placed in him: he's a canny enough politician to know how all these interviews are going to play. Ed Miliband deserves better, much better from his shadow chancellor.

I agree. I note that Johnson says in the Telegraph interview, when asked by Mary Riddell if he has been "slapped down" by Miliband:

No. That is the mark of the man.

Perhaps Ed M needs to start doing some "slapping". If he's not worried by his shadow chancellor's rather vocal "differences of opinion" on two key policies (50p income tax and graduate tax), then he should be worried by the supposed scoop in today's Mail on Sunday:

Alan Johnson is being urged by his supporters to "ready himself" to replace Ed Miliband if the Labour leader succumbs to the growing crisis surrounding the party.

The dhadow chancellor is already being talked up as a stand-in leader – less than three months after Mr Miliband won a bitter battle with his brother David for the party crown.

So why should he be worried? Not because the story is true; it isn't. The source of the "ready himself" quote is unclear and those of us who have spoken to Johnson recognise that he has no desire to be the next leader of the Labour Party. Indeed, the former home secretary had ample opportunity to stand for leader – against both Gordon Brown and, over the summer, both Miliband brothers. He was urged to do so by Labour MPs, activists and the commentariat. But he didn't. Like Jon Cruddas, he lacks the killer instinct, the leadership ambition.

But the problem for Miliband is that such stories will become more and more frequent in the coming days and weeks, and will harden the narrative of a "split" between the Labour leader and his shadow chancellor, making Johnson appear more rebellious and divisive than – to be fair! – he actually is.

Meanwhile, I note that the Mail on Sunday's Glen Owen went wandering through the Commons tea rooms and dining rooms looking for the Blairite "usual suspects" and – surprise, surprise! – found them:

One prominent Labour backbencher bluntly described Mr Miliband as "f****** useless", while another said the parliamentary party was "completely demoralised".

He added that because Mr Miliband had won the leadership with union votes and did not have a majority of his MPs behind him, there was little appetite to rally round.

"Members of the shadow cabinet are being openly critical in the tea rooms," he said.

"Everyone thinks that Johnson would make a far better leader, but he is stopping short of saying he wants to do it."

A Labour peer was equally damning: "Ed is a student politician, and that is all he will ever be."

Yawn. There's the usual claim that Miliband does "not have a majority of his MPs behind him" and that there is therefore "little appetite to rally round", while omitting to mention the fact that: a) Mili-E won the support of 122 Labour MPs, and b) of the 140 MPs who backed his brother, a big chunk of them put Ed M down as their second preference. He is far from isolated inside the PLP. In fact, the only thing missing from this predictable Sunday-political piece is the now-regular discussion of Brother David's manoeuvring and Mili-D's much-mentioned "lunching" of national newspaper editors in recent weeks.

But, I mean, let's assume Ed M was "got rid" of by rebellious, right-wing MPs, rather than, say, run over by a bus. Would the Labour Party really turn to the other Miliband for leadership in such a scenario? How would MPs explain such a move to the electorate and the media? Wouldn't it just be weird to have David M replace Ed M in a coup, or some such divisive and traumatic event, after Ed M beat David M fair and square in the leadership election only two months ago? Isn't it time for David M, "Labour's lost leader", to accept that he, ahem, lost?

And, frankly, isn't it time for the Mili-D ally Alan Johnson to get on board the Ed Miliband Express? According to Westminster's conventional wisdom, Ed Miliband had to appointJohnson as shadow chancellor, rather than Ed Balls, despite the latter's superior qualifications and credentials, because Johnson would help Ed M unite the shadow cabinet while Balls would have undermined Miliband's leadership. That is to say Johnson would be loyal, Balls disloyal. The exact reverse, of course, has happened.

Perhaps, from now on, Johnson should keep his disagreements with his leader over policy issues to himself and focus his energies on attacking the coalition. I, for one, was deeply disappointed to see the shadow chancellor and his team refuse to comment on last week's WikiLeaks revelations about Mervyn King's outrageous intervention in the party-political debate over deficit reduction. It was left to the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, and the backbencher Tristram Hunt to point out that the Bank of England governor's independence had been "called into question" and that he "needs to take great care".

Can you imagine what Ed Balls would have said? Oh well . . .

 

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.

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt