Will Brown face one last rebellion?

Rebels explore the "Aznar option"

Barry Sheerman, once described as the leader of Labour's internal opposition, is at it again in the Independent today, calling for Gordon Brown to resign. He writes:

No one would wish to underrate the significant contribution that Gordon Brown has made to our nation's politics. We all understand that, at heart, he wants the very best for Britain. However, now is the time for those around him who also care about our country's future to convince him that it is time for him to make way for a new leader.

Sheerman's intervention follows that of Charles Clarke, who in a typically robust article on Wednesday declared:

All the evidence suggests that Brown's leadership reduces Labour support, that alternative leaders would improve our ratings, and that an election determined by voters' answers to the question "Do you want Gordon Brown to be Prime Minister for the next five years?" would further shrink Labour support.

The psephological case against Brown is a strong one. No prime minister has been as unpopular as him and gone on to win the subsequent election. A recent Times leader revealed that Philip Gould has told the cabinet that Labour could win only if it replaced Brown.

This said, I'm rather sceptical of polls showing that Labour would do better under almost any alternative leader. To most voters, Harriet Harman and David Miliband are mere names. They don't know enough to dislike them.

The latest idea canvassed by the rebels is the so-called "Aznar option". Under this scenario, Brown, like the former Spanish premier, would remain Prime Minister until the election but Labour would elect a new leader to fight the campaign.

Matthew Taylor, who first explored the possibility back in August, points out:

In this way the internal contest within the party for its next leader is not about foisting a new prime minister on the country, but about choosing someone about whom the voters can make up their own mind.

The main stumbling block to any rebellion remains the absence of a definitive, Heseltine-type challenger to Brown. This is something of a pity, as the narrowing of the polls may actually strengthen the case for replacing Brown. In a hung parliament, a pluralist figure such as David Miliband would be far more likely to cut a deal with Nick Clegg than the tribal Brown.

History suggests that Sheerman and Clarke aren't likely to rouse a rebellion, but I'd be surprised if large parts of the PLP aren't considering all options as we enter 2010.


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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.