Why this half-hearted plot will fail

Barring a major cabinet resignation, Brown is safe

The behaviour of Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt is a fine example of how not to lead a plot. Both have been making the media rounds claiming, absurdly, that their decision to call for a secret ballot on Brown's leadership is not designed to undermine the Prime Minister. Do they really believe that Brown could emerge strengthened from a disruptive ballot? Their refusal to declare which way they would vote is taking the PLP for a bunch of fools.

There are several reasons why this plot is likely to fail. First, the decision to go public strongly suggests they have failed to persuade any cabinet minister to turn against Brown. While the Prime Minister retains the support of cabinet heavweights such as Mandelson, Miliband, Darling and Straw he is likely to survive.

Second, that this latest plot is led by two unambiguous Blairites means the centre left of the party, focused around the Compass group, is unlikely to join in. So long as the rebellion remains confined to the usual suspects -- Charles Clarke, Frank Field, Barry Sheerman -- Brown and his allies can dismiss this as another botched coup.

Third, there remains no pre-eminent, Heseltine-style challenger for disaffected MPs to coalesce around. It is noteworthy that neither Hewitt nor Hoon named an alternative leader.

Finally, as my colleague James Macintyre, who broke the story today, has pointed out, their plot comes after an unusually strong performance by Brown at PMQs, something that is likely to have lifted the mood of backbenchers.

Although he is likely to survive, the latest plot remains a disastrous development for Brown. The Tories and the Lib Dems will declare again and again (and they'll be right) that Labour is a divided party and that the electorate hates divided parties.

The psephological case against Brown remains strong. No prime minister has been as unpopular as him and gone on to win the subsequent election. But at this stage it's hard to see how a prolonged and bitter leadership contest could be anything but damaging for Labour. Should the party wish to avoid a catastrophic defeat at the election it must call time on this pitiful spectacle.

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.