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.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.