Not enough fire in the belly

Labour's younger ministers are competent and assiduous, but none has yet emerged as inspirational. W

So why has no one moved against Gordon Brown? Where are the bold spirits in the cabinet prepared to resign over 42 days detention without charge, as Robin Cook did over the decision to go to war in Iraq? Why has no single figure emerged as a potential rival to the Prime Minister?

These are not mere rhetorical flourishes, but questions now being expressed on a daily basis by Labour backbenchers and even some ministers. The obvious response is that any challenge to Brown would be a suicidal act of disloyalty. It would rip a still remarkably unified party asunder and trumpet the fact that Labour no longer believes it can win the next election. But that is not the whole story.

Imagine if, for instance, James Purnell or David Miliband resigned from the cabinet and returned to the back benches saying that the drift had gone far enough. They could announce that the position of the government was no longer sustainable and a new approach was needed. This individual could even have the luxury of resigning on a matter of principle: over the government's increasingly authoritarian anti-terror legislation, or the failure to stay on track with poverty targets. In all likelihood, the earth would swallow them up and they would be consigned to a life of obscurity for such an act of treachery.

But what a prize if they pulled it off. Even if the next election is already lost, the man or woman who was able to prevent a Conservative landslide would be well placed to lead the party through a short period of opposition before returning in triumph to Downing Street. In such extraordinary times, with public opinion so volatile, isn't it surprising that no one is prepared to take the risk?

The answer lies with the character of the younger generation of cabinet ministers, who came to political maturity under new Labour. With each potential candidate, it is possible to explain away their reticence. Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander are loyal servants of the Prime Minister, who owe their political careers to his patronage. They will never turn against him. Andy Burnham is too new to the cabinet and not an obvious coup leader. James Purnell lacks the necessary depth of support within the Parliamentary Labour Party. David Miliband had his chance last year and blew it. The only women senior enough, Ruth Kelly and Jacqui Smith, are not thought worthy of consideration.

It would have been a tragedy if this talented group of younger Labour politicians had never been given the chance to run a large government department. They have been, for the most part, competent and assiduous in their jobs. But none has yet shown him- or herself to be the kind of bold or inspirational figure that makes for leadership material.

In 2006, I dubbed this group of fortysomething politicians the "Adrian Mole generation", as they are the same age as Sue Townsend's eponymous hero and shared some of his capacity for tortured self-reflection. Along with their Conservative and Liberal Democrat counterparts, I suggested that they were likely to dominate the British political scene for the next decade. With David Cameron as Tory leader and Nick Clegg at the helm of the Lib Dems, that is now beyond doubt.

This group grew to adulthood between the miners' strike of 1984 and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, so their ideology is not defined by the traditional left-right divisions. But the other defining event of their lives was the global economic recession of the late 1980s, which struck just as they were leaving university into an uncertain world. No surprise, perhaps, that many of them found refuge in the cosy, secure world of party politics. What this means, however, is that they are collectively defined by their instinct for caution. These are people psychologically programmed against taking risks.

One young minister told me recently that there is a great deal of frustration at the inability of new Labour's second generation to produce a politician with fire in the belly. "Where is the figure who will change the way we do politics? Where is our Barack Obama?" These are good questions. When David Cameron starts to offer himself up as the nearest thing Britain has to a candidate who represents "change we can believe in", then you know we are in trouble.

In its official guise, new Labour is more than ten years old. It is two decades old if you count the Kinnock years. Everybody knows it needs recasting. But it looks as if we will need to skip a generation before someone arrives with the guts to carry out the necessary revolution. We may not yet have even heard the name of the next great leader of the Labour Party.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.