Shortly after the 2001 general election, a meeting took place in Downing Street to discuss the idea of part-privatisation of the Royal Mail. It was attended by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the then chancellor, Charles Clarke, party chairman, and Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary. There was general agreement that if the Royal Mail was to be privatised, timing would be all important – even Margaret Thatcher had resisted such a move. It was suggested that any privatisation should be implemented early in the parliamentary term to minimise the effect at the next election. But, according to one official present at the meeting, the plan to privatise the Post Office was blocked by one Gordon Brown.
Now, with 150 Labour MPs set to vote against the government’s proposal for a 30 per cent part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, the issue has returned to torment the Prime Minister at a time of heightened crisis. Damaging reports have emerged that Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, is encouraging rebellion against the bill, which has been brought forward by his old enemy Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary. Once again, Labour is divided over a fundamental issue and, as the government looks set to rely on Conservative support on the Post Office vote next month, the Prime Minister’s position is inevitably once more being questioned: will he lose another vote because of a Labour backbench rebellion?
Amid the excitement of the moment, however, some sober perspective: the next general election is at least a year away, and Brown remains all but certain to lead Labour into it. For all the fresh talk of a government in “crisis”, for all the speculation about leadership alternatives, for all the relentless, anti-Labour coverage in the media, the Prime Minister remains convinced that he is the right man to lead the country out of recession. “He is hunkering down this week, and getting on with the job,” according to someone close to him.
There is nothing new about the current crisis of confidence among Labour MPs. Brown has been subjected to speculation about his prime ministership since autumn 2007, when he decided against calling a snap election. He has experienced extreme highs and lows in popularity, with several switches of fortunes, as if his fate were down to a version of political musical chairs. The sense of “crisis” last summer was more profound after David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to challenge him. Brown has suffered worse batterings than this.
What is different, however, and worrying for Brown, is a new fearlessness among several of his cabinet critics, such as Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary. As I wrote in this column a fortnight ago, the Damian McBride affair has stripped Brown of personal authority among some of his own ministers. What has wounded him so badly is less the revelations about the proposed smear tactics to be used against leading Conservatives than the subsequent confirmation that the dark side of his internal operation extends to damaging his own colleagues.
True, many Labour MPs felt Brown was on the wrong side of the argument about Gurkha repatriation, allowing Nick Clegg and, to a lesser extent, David Cameron to expose him at Prime Minister’s Questions. In the Commons chamber the following day, during the debate on MPs’ expenses, Labour members were openly shaking their heads as the government put its case for abolishing the second homes allowance. By any yardstick, it has been a humiliating month for the government.
Yet there is little doubt that underpinning these events has been the slow-motion fallout from the exposure of Brown’s ruthlessness: the worst-kept secret in Westminster. And the result, yet again, is more leadership speculation.
Against this backdrop, the weekend declaration by Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, that he can, after all, envisage circumstances in which he would stand for the Labour leadership, is significant (“I am not saying there would be no circumstances”). The myth that he lacks ambition – reinforced after he told Desert Island Discs in 2007 that he did not regard himself as “good enough” for the top job – was always as inaccurate as it was favourable to Johnson’s image. In fact, he is now firmly in the running.
By chance, meanwhile, his position has been helped by the brutal treatment of Harriet Harman. On 4 May, it was reported that Harman would stand for the leadership after Brown stepped down. In reply, because of Brown’s perceived vulnerability, she was forced to tour the broadcasting studios, where she gave a series of interviews denying that she would ever stand against him. Harman was flushed out, and some of her supporters, while exonerating Johnson, suspect the dark arts of one of her other possible future leadership rivals. True or not, and for better or worse, Harman suddenly finds herself out of the leadership stakes.
The reality often missing from the leadership discourse is that no one in the cabinet appears to be prepared to challenge Brown. All the present jostling is for the chalice – however poisoned – to be picked up after Brown has voluntarily stepped down if he loses the next election.
So what of Charles Clarke? What does he want, for himself and the party? There remains a slim chance that Clarke would challenge Brown after the local and European elections, which are on the same day, 4 June. These are expected to be disastrous for Labour.
There is a feeling among a minority of MPs that if Labour were to perform as poorly as expected at the June elections, then, as Frank Field has put it, there would be “one last chance” to instal a new leader later in the summer. John Major, after all, won the 1992 general election against the odds, and after replacing Margaret Thatcher following an internal party coup. But he had two years rather than one to establish authority and a rapport with the electorate.
In February, Clarke declared a leadership ceasefire, telling the New Statesman that “Gordon will lead us into the next election”. Asked if he felt that was best for the party, he said: “Yes, I do. I mean, we went through the process last year – Gordon made his own view clear, the party made it clear. You won’t have from me, or other people, leadership issues being raised; that is where we are.”
The problem for Brown, however, is that “we” are now in a different place. Clarke remains “ashamed” of Labour in the aftermath of the McBride debacle, hence his call for ministers linked to the disgraced aide to be removed. When this was interpreted as a demand for Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, to be sacked, no denial came from Clarke.
Today, Brown must be wondering if he should have offered Clarke a ministerial position some months back: the former home secretary remains a dangerous, unguided missile. However, it is likely that Clarke will again hold back from a challenge if – and it remains an open “if” – he calculates that a contest would damage Labour even more than to continue with the status quo.
Gordon Brown is nothing if not resilient: even his fiercest critics concede that the Prime Minister should never be underestimated. He has shown for over a decade, through a combination of intellectual strength and ruthlessness, that he has a robust instinct for survival. An example of this came last autumn with his successful conference speech in Manchester and, with the help of Alistair Darling, his dramatic and decisive move to recapitalise the banks at a time of national emergency.
Many times Brown has been misguidedly written off.
For now, in spite of everything, most Labour MPs believe the Prime Minister will stay on to fight his first, and only, general election as leader. To ensure at least that happens, however, he must once again show them why he has the right to carry on.
To read James Macintyre’s interview with Charles Clarke in our issue of 9 February go to: www.newstatesman.com