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Squish. Splat. Wallop?

The Prime Minister is exhausted, abused and hapless. Labour MPs have one final opportunity to remove

Some Labour MPs dare to wonder whether the expenses saga might damage the Conservatives more than them. It is a sign of the state their party is in when they see a glimmer of

light in a story that has plunged parliament and nearly all politicians into gloom. On the whole, however, Labour MPs envisage nothing but bad news in the weeks leading up to the summer break and they do not know what to do about it. Inevitably, as they contemplate the bleak outlook, their agonised doubts about the leadership of Gordon Brown move centre-stage once more. They agonise with at least as much intensity as they did a year ago.

The latest outbreak of speculative fever, accompanied by tentative, shapeless plotting (the leading dissenters are hopeless plotters), has erupted partly because there is one final opportunity this summer for the party to change its leader. After that, all the parties will be in pre-election mode and the moment will have passed.

Naturally, the eruption required a few more immediate sparks. The revelations about Dam­ian McBride’s emails were followed by Gordon Brown’s clumsy handling of the “no win” issue of MPs’ expenses. One minister suggested to me that Tony Blair and his advisers would have been alert to the dangers last summer, when it was clear that expenses were a ticking time bomb. According to her, they would have started a public debate about the role of MPs, their relationship with parliament and their constituencies, and the working hours at Westminster, as a pre-emptive damage limitation exercise. I wonder about that and whether it would have worked, but there is quite a lot of talk among ministers about the slickness of Blair’s Downing Street operation compared to Brown’s.

Some ministers watched Brown’s inept response to Joanna Lumley and the Gurkhas with particular alarm. As one said to me: “Gordon did everything the wrong way around. He failed to deal with the crisis in advance of the Commons vote. He lost the vote. Only then, when everything was too late, did he hold a meeting with Joanna Lumley. Why didn’t he meet her at the beginning of the sequence rather than at the end? It is a case study in how not to handle an issue.”

Yet when ministers and MPs have finished

despairing about recent events they look a little bewildered when asked: “So could there be a change of leader this summer?”

They respond as if they are being asked to

contemplate such a frightening leap in the dark

that they do not wish to go there at all. Some say

a change could happen only if Brown decided

to leave of his own volition. Some talk vaguely

of a “perfect storm” in which Brown falls after the June elections and the potentially explosive Commons vote over part-privatisation of Royal Mail. Most say that Labour has changed leaders once in this parliament and could not do so again.

There is virtually no optimism anywhere in Labour’s ranks beyond some ministers, who have witnessed the many oscillations in Brown’s career at close quarters and know how resilient he is, how capable he is of bouncing back from seemingly impossible lows. They cling, too, to the possibility of a tangible economic recovery and the hope that the limits of David Cameron’s so-called modernisation of his party will be exposed by the expenses row.

They are probably all being a little too vague

as they look with varying degrees of impotent fearfulness towards the near future. Given the unpredictability of politics in relation to most

issues, it is not too difficult to weigh up the

risks of changing a leader, the most charged issue of them all. The calculations are straightforward and depend on the answers to two questions. How much of Labour’s unpopularity is down to the leadership of Gordon Brown? Are there circumstances in which Labour could elect a more popular figure without making matters even worse than they are already?

The answer to the first question is

more complicated than the answer to the second. With the exception of Brown’s brief and superficial honeymoon in 2007, Labour has been behind in the polls more or less since Cameron became leader of the Conservatives. When Blair was at his most Blairite, in his final years as leader, he and Labour were unpopular, which suggests that the waving of a Blairite wand is not the solution to Labour’s difficulties. Nor could a new leader conjure away the economic nightmare. I always thought the mood last autumn was a little odd when there was premature excitement among ministers that the most serious economic crisis for at least 60 years would save a government that had been in power for more than a decade.

More fundamentally, Labour is a confused and depressed party, as bewildered now by the purpose and meaning of the New Labour project as the Conservatives were by Thatcherism after the lady’s fall from power. The recession intensifies the bewilderment. Ministers hail a significant left-of-centre moment in the collapse of the financial markets. But New Labour paid homage to the era of light regulation that led to the collapse. More widely, if you ask ministers and MPs what Labour is for, you get as many different

answers as you do when you ask them about

the leadership. Indeed, the fundamental cause

of Brown’s problems is reflected in his own unresolved internal debate about how he should lead. He has never decided whether he wanted

to make a break from Blairism or reinforce his predecessor’s expedient crusade. One of his

entourage puts it to me slightly differently: “Gordon has never decided whether he could risk making a break with Blairism, at least until he had won an election.”

As the Conservatives demonstrated when changing their leaders, a new figure at the helm does not necessarily address such fundamental confusions about the purpose of a party, and can make them worse.

There remains, ultimately, the question of Brown himself. He is getting the worst press of any leader since Michael Foot; some columnists seem to blame him for every dodgy expenses claim made by MPs and for the entire global recession. Yet only a few weeks ago he presided successfully over the G20 summit in London, and there are some signs that the package of

measures announced over the past six months

is starting to make an impact on the economy.

At times, he has shown a foolishly impatient and misjudged hunger to announce half-baked initiatives in order to make a headline. Occasionally his craving for popularity has led him to combine excessive caution with reckless risk-taking. Yet it is difficult to imagine any other cabinet minister coping as he did when faced with the collapse of some banks last autumn. All these are arguments for sticking with the current leader.

However, Brown’s experience of economic policymaking has become a liability. He has been at the top of British politics longer than is healthy for his party, and probably for himself. I would estimate that, in today’s modern media, the shelf life of a politician at the very top is a maximum

of eight years, and possibly less than that. Brown became a high-profile shadow chancellor in 1992, 17 years ago. Now he has lost the media and it

is difficult to see how he can change the narrative, not least when morale is so low, both his own and the government’s. One minister tells me, not

surprisingly, that

the mood among ministers is joyless. No one, he suggests, feels part of a team.

If Brown were to go, the problems associated specifically with him – Damian McBride, elements of economic policymaking, his personi­fication of a tired, long-serving gov­ernment – would go, too. But could

the party pull off a change without wreaking more damage?

Whenever speculation mounts about a new Labour leader before the coming election, the name

of the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, is raised. Beyond the occasional fleeting reference to the cunning wisdom of Jack Straw, I have heard no one

else cited. There is, therefore,

a possibility that Johnson could be anointed without a contest, as Michael Howard was when the Conservative Party dumped Iain Duncan Smith in a panic.

Labour MPs tell me this is impossible because the media and the voters would not accept a second non-elected prime minister. They argue that Johnson would be in the bizarre position of having to call a general election almost immediately in order to secure legitimacy, even though he would lose. On this precise point, they are certainly wrong. The manner in which a leader is elected is always a secondary issue compared with the sensational novelty of the change itself.

The Conservatives would call for an election. Parts of the media would also make the case. But for a short time the bulk of the media would be occupied with the excitement of a new narrative: the former postman who had made it to the top and the final ending of the Blair/Brown era. Even though polls now suggest that a switch to Johnson would not help Labour, I suspect that, for a time, politics would feel very different if it were actually to happen. That is the one big advantage for Labour if it were to make the change.

The problems are more obvious: Johnson

is adamant he does not want the job; a change would only paper over the cracks that would resurface; the very act of putting him in No 10 would be a symptom of a more fundamental crisis for the governing party; and Johnson has not held one of the big departmental posts. How would he handle a sudden twist in the economic crisis, and what is his broader vision? An adviser to Blair tells me that most decisions they faced each day when he was in No 10 could be easily summed up: “Prime Minister, do you want to cut your throat or slit your wrist?” It was much the hardest job in British politics, even when Labour held a three-figure majority in the Commons and the Tories were in disarray. Imagine what it would be like acting as the third prime minister in a single term, during a recession, with a general election moving into view.

Yet if I were a Labour MP with a constituency majority of less than 10,000 I would at least contemplate such a move, and be confident that the party would get a short-term boost.

All eyes will be on Brown and his Downing Street operation in the build-up to next month’s European and local elections and beyond. If he shows signs of getting his act together, looking less awkward and exhausted, MPs will not and should not take the risk to oust him. If the wretched sequence that began with the McBride emails continues into the summer, I would not altogether rule out a change. After all, what would you do, if there were one more throw of the dice that might just save your seat? l

Steve Richards is chief political commentator

for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom