Jowell, anti-Brown plotters and "the last throw of the dice"

PM remains "paranoid" and "obsessed" about a move against him

Today should have been a good day for the Prime Minister. Labour had won the first round of election-year battling after David Cameron reversed his position on tax breaks for married couples. Having first said they could not be guaranteed because of the scale of the Budget deficit, he (characteristically) caved in to pressure from the Tory right, an army of ConservativeHome bloggers and the traditionalist former leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Yet, while a number of MPs claimed that Gordon Brown would now survive this crucial month -- the last chance for any internal coup -- the rumblings have continued. While Brown was on retreat at his constituency home in Fife, a series of calls and messages had been exchanged between ministers and backbenchers over the leadership.

Then a rumour emerged that another cabinet minister was set to resign over Brown's leadership. The subject of that rumour was the "Blairite" Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, but Downing Street received an assurance on the phone by her that she was staying. "Tessa is in a good place with Gordon at the moment," said a well-placed source.

Nonetheless, Brown remains "paranoid" and "obsessed" about the prospects of a move against him, according to one ally.

He was visibly relieved by recent polls showing a Labour upturn in the polls, especially a pre-Christmas report in the Guardian under the headline "Labour back in the race". But Brown has also reacted angrily to specific polling showing that he himself is unpopular, a liability. And it was in defensive mode that he emerged into the limelight, appearing on Andrew Marr's BBC show with his hands clenched awkwardly to his knees.

"The only real issue about the leadership now lies in the bunker itself," one supportive party figure says. "The plotters can't get their act together, but the question is whether Gordon can."

Meanwhile, Downing Street insists this is simply "tearoom gossip". And while it is true that the rebels, led by Charles Clarke, know that this is their "last throw of the dice", it appears that Brown will remain Labour leader into the election.

The main problem no anti-Brown Labour figure has ever been able to resolve is how there could be a second "smooth transition" of the leadership, a question that becomes more acute every day in the run-up to the election this spring. Lord Falconer, no fool, maintains that a contest -- avoided in 2007 -- would be "healthy". But he is practically alone.

The reality is that Labour would implode into a full-scale leadership contest involving several or all of the following: David Miliband, Ed Balls, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas, Alan Johnson and maybe Ed Miliband. Brown would not be in a position of strength to ensure a successor of his choice. And Balls would not tolerate that transition to any figure other than himself.

Instead, the only prospect of Brown's removal -- which surely must, if it is going to happen, come within ten days from now -- is for him to step down voluntarily. Some say that this would take a private appeal from those unlikely allies, Peter Mandelson and Balls. One MP tonight wistfully floated the idea that Brown could "miraculously" be found a "saving the world" job such as head of the International Monetary Fund.

The plotters whinge that the Labour movement should not have to go down because of the ruthlessness and political vanity of one man.

But, as one MP said tonight, "they have no balls". This is not quite fair: David Miliband, for example, the most credible candidate to replace Brown before the election, has judged that the carnage that would ensue from his resignation as Foreign Secretary would not be in the interests of the party. The cliché that he is a "bottler" is not accurate. The situation -- like Miliband himself -- is more complicated than is assumed.

What is clear, however, is that there is nothing in the history or psychology of Gordon Brown indicating that he would have fought bitterly with Tony Blair for ten years, and endured such abuse as Prime Minister for two, only to give up the chance of fighting a general election he still genuinely believes he can win.

 


Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era