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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Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.