The summer silly season has come very early for Westminster hacks. They are so bored with Tony Blair and new Labour that they have conspired with a few maverick Labour MPs to get stories going about plots to oust the Prime Minister. Everyone knows that booting Blair out is about as unlikely as Iain Duncan Smith going to the Notting Hill Carnival in a baseball cap, but that doesn't stop Westminster's finest scribes writing about it. The one person they all quote as being the most likely to succeed Blair is my old boss Gordon Brown. Every one of them conveniently neglects to mention that, despite well-reported differences, Brown is still one of Blair's closest allies and is the most unlikely person on earth to stab Blair in the back. Brown is one of the most loyal politicians I have ever met, and even if Blair did betray him once, the odds of Brown doing the same are virtually nil.
The Sunday Times, ever keen to be ahead of the game, even commissioned an opinion poll on the leadership - an old trick to get a cheap story - in which 63 per cent thought that Blair should step down before the next election.
Surprise, surprise, Brown was miles ahead of anyone else as the preferred choice for the next leader, with David Blunkett a distant second. Down at 1 per cent were Robin Cook and Charles Clarke. This made all the more astonishing the Sunday Times story that some plotters had picked out the thirsty Clarke as their next leader. You can't blame the ever-reliable Eben Black for writing this nonsense. He assures me that's what he's been told, and I believe him. Clarke is a very ambitious man, but this time his supporters have been overenthusiastic. The last great hope of the Blair/Mandelson wing of the party was Stephen Byers, and look what's happened to him.