Brown’s big moment

The Prime Minister faced down his enemies and won back Labour's confidence. Now comes the difficult

Never underestimate Gordon Brown. That would appear to be the lesson to take from this year's Labour conference by his political enemies inside and outside the party. The Prime Minister began the week in Manchester as the architect of Britain's economic downturn, besieged by challengers to his authority. He ended it by making a credible case, in his party's eyes at least, that he is the only man for the job of steering Britain through uniquely difficult times.

Two Davids were slain by Goliath's insinuation that this is no time for "novices". Brown's main conference address was not quite the speech of his life, though it might have been if he had made it last year. But it was the best many activists had ever seen him make and precisely the message they wanted to hear: a new calibration of the relationship of the market and the state containing a solid challenge to the banking industry to get its house in order, along with a renewed commitment to the role of government. The key section of his speech was these words: "Just as those who supported the dogma of big government were proved wrong, so, too, those who argue for the dogma of unbridled free-market forces have been proved wrong again." In other words, 2008 may turn out to be as signi ficant as 1989. As the US government contemplates a $700bn banking bailout, the rules of the political game have changed just as surely as they did after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Now comes the difficult part: delivery. This includes, for instance, making good on the bold claim that "in the months ahead we [will] rebuild the world financial systems around clear principles". Politicians are often accused of making promises they can't keep, but this really is quite a pledge. If the Prime Minister pulls off this superhuman feat he will deserve to be back in contention for the next election.

Brown now seems to have accepted his Chancellor's assessment that the world is entering the most difficult economic period it has experienced for 60 years, despite allowing a disgraceful briefing operation against one of his closest and most loyal political allies following Alistair Darling's remarks in a Guardian interview over the summer. Though the Chancellor's comments provided a rather gloomy assessment of the situation for a party so far behind in the polls, they now seem like something of an understatement.

The one outcome the clever boys who invented new Labour never considered as they excised the socialism from their party was that we would witness a crisis of global capitalism in the first decade of the 21st century so severe that it would force both Britain and America into nationalising financial institutions. The events of the past month are beyond the wildest predictions of the handful of Marxists left in the Labour Party. But they have allowed Gordon Brown to reposition himself as a man of the left: if not quite a socialist, then a confirmed social democrat. This is a high-risk strategy, because it will have confirmed what the Conservatives and those on the right of the Labour Party have always suspected about him. The autumn will show whether Brown will be able to counter charges from the right-wing press that he has simply taken his party back to its statist roots in order to guarantee his own political survival.

One test as Brown moves the political centre of gravity in his party to the left is whether he can hold together a coalition within his party of those who would be naturally suspicious of such an approach. Within the cabinet, John Hutton at Business and James Purnell at Work and Pensions will take some convincing, but their loyalty will be all the more vital. As the Prime Minister contemplates the imminent re shuffle, he will have to consider promotion for more "Blairites" such as the immigration minister Liam Byrne and the Europe minister Jim Murphy, neither of whom is his natural ally.

Bring all the talents

It seems like a very long time ago, but this was supposed to be a "government of all the talents". If the financial crisis is as serious as many in the government suggest, then extraordinary times require bold solutions. There is an argument for saying that the Prime Minister should invite David Cameron and Nick Clegg to Downing Street and tell them the time has come for all good men to come to the aid of the country. A national government would allow Brown to bring in expertise from across the political spectrum.

Just imagine if Vince Cable's business expertise could be harnessed in the present situation. An offer of cabinet posts to the Tories and Lib Dems would also serve to completely wrong-foot the opposition. Such thoughts are fanciful, of course, but they raise some interesting questions about Gordon Brown's leadership.

Let's imagine for a moment that such a coalition would be in Britain's best interests. It could also include, as Bernard Donoughue suggested in these pages last week, some Labour big beasts such as Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn. Would Gordon Brown have the generosity of political spirit to bring together such a group when he can barely hold together his own cabinet? There is a serious side to such speculation, which is this: Cameron may well turn out to be capable of such generosity. The Tories have already mischievously invited the education minister Andrew Adonis to cross the floor and there is little doubt that further offers would follow a Conservative election victory.

The overarching narrative of Manchester 2008 may be that Gordon Brown lived to fight another day but the whiff of rebellion still hangs over the Labour Party. David Miliband may have pulled back from his "Heseltine moment" (his parliamentary private secretary, Dan Norris, was sending out messages to MPs on Monday urging them to brief journalists that the Foreign Secretary's speech was intended as an act of loyalty). But too much has now been said and done. Every senior political journalist at Labour conference will have had conversations with at least one cabinet minister, expressing grave doubts about the Prime Minister's leadership. Despite attempts during conference to smear as traitors those who, like Siobhain McDonagh and Joan Ryan, called publicly for a leadership contest, the two women ended up looking more like conscientious objectors. It is to the eternal discredit of Labour colleagues who treated McDonagh and Ryan as pariahs that they failed to recognise the years of devoted service they had given to the party.

Competing narratives

Gordon Brown quite wisely used Manchester to move the debate on to the global stage and away from the petty sectarianism that has engulfed the Labour Party. Unfortunately, this was challenged by two competing narratives that dominated the late-night bars in Manchester.

The first was the relentless bullying and poisonous briefing carried out by Brown's inner circle of bag carriers and the second that No 10 Downing Street has become "dysfunctional" under Brown's stewardship. The word "thug" was rivalled only by "rebel" in the lexicon of this year's Labour conference. There was serious speculation, for example, that No 10 obtained an advance copy of the Guardian magazine in which Decca Aitkenhead's interview with Darling appeared, and leaked it to the Telegraph before the Guardian went on sale.

Recent events have allowed the PM to reposition himself as a man of the left

There is a growing consensus which includes cabinet ministers and journalists that Brown must act to control his main spin doctor, Damian McBride, who has been held responsible for some of the more personal attacks in recent months. The presence in Manchester of McBride's predecessor Charlie Whelan, who now works as the political director of the trade union Unite, did not help the atmosphere. Seconds after Brown's speech, Whelan was telling anyone who would listen that the Prime Minister's "novice" remark was certainly intended as a reference to David Miliband.

The second narrative of conference, that No 10 has become dysfunctional, is even more damaging for the PM. Ministers talked freely of "sclerosis", "indecision" and "incompetence" as the defining features of their dealings with the centre of government. One senior Labour figure, who had experience of working under Tony Blair and Brown, said the difference was immediate and startling. For instance, there were key individuals under Blair. "If you called Jonathan [Powell] or Anji [Hunter] or Sally [Morgan] you knew you would get a decision within 24 hours. With this lot it would sometimes take weeks or months. Sometimes you heard nothing at all." The trouble for Brown is that no attempt to shake up the operation has made a significant difference.

A lot is resting on Brown's first reshuffle, which will be such a huge test of his authority that there is every possibility he will delay it still further. The decision he makes about his Chancellor could turn out to be the most defining moment of his premiership, beyond his decision to call off the election that never was. One reason Gordon Brown will find it so difficult to sack Alistair Darling is that he and those around him are furious at the way he was hung out to dry over the summer. Darling has the capacity to become the Geoffrey Howe of this Labour government if he chose to do so. It is a cruel paradox that the Prime Minister's greatest ally could become his most dangerous foe. lInside trackInside track

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The crash of 2008

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.