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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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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