Labour is the loser from this shameful affair

The irony is that it should have been a good week for Brown

It's no surprise that Gordon Brown remains leader of the Labour Party this morning. This was the third coup attempt against Brown and the most inept yet. As Steve Richards argues in the must-read column of the morning, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have inflicted terrible damage on the party, leaving Labour "the biggest victim".

The reason why the plot failed to prompt a cabinet resignation and attracted only minimal backbench support is that there remains no substantial evidence that Labour would fare better under an alternative leader. The polls show no popular enthusiasm for Harriet Harman, David Miliband or Alan Johnson.

The plot came in what should have been a good week for Brown. He turned in one of his best performances at PMQs, showing signs of the skill and wit that once made him a feared Commons opponent. He embarrassed David Cameron over his equivocations on marriage and tax, which forced the Tory leader to admit on the Today programme this morning that he had "messed up".

And now a new Sun/ICM poll shows Labour cutting the Tories' lead again, this time to 9 points, putting the party within reach of a hung parliament. The poll also confirms what we instinctively know: that Brown's removal would do little to boost Labour's ratings. Some 82 per cent of voters say it would either make no difference or encourage them to vote Labour if he stayed.

The lukewarm cabinet support for Brown confirms the alienation many ministers feel from his premiership, but there is a world of difference between discontent and outright rebellion. It was staggeringly naive of Hewitt and Hoon not to anticipate this reality.

Their intervention has gifted the Tories and Lib Dems the chance to argue again and again that Labour is a divided party at a time when the country needs a strong, united government. It may be a cliché to say that the electorate hates divided governments but, as Peter Riddell reminds us this morning, it is true. Hewitt and Hoon have done more damage to Labour in a day than Cameron could have hoped to achieve all month.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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