How often have we wished that an election would fall conveniently at a time when we most wish to take out ill-feeling on those in charge? By sheer fluke, the local and European elections offer a seriously displeased electorate the opportunity to play Judgement Day.
The most unintentionally comical headline in the past few weeks was the Financial Times’s deliberation on the latest work and pensions reform: “Purnell outlines ‘jobs guarantee’ scheme”. If only the same certainty of employment could be guaranteed for the cabinet, twitching at the end of a rope as it awaits its fate.
These elections have taken on symbolic cleansing significance. Pretence that this is remotely about Europe or local representation is thin indeed. With the exception of the UK Independence Party and a few diehard Eurosceptics, barely anyone trudging to the polls on 4 June will be brooding on the fate of the Lisbon Treaty. And only the most exceptional local politicians can expect deliverance from being judged on the miserable national picture of greedy, fat-cat MPs.
Both main parties are thus vulnerable to the punitive rictus (the Liberal Democrats rather less so, as their leader had a tendency to go on about parliamentary reform back when it was an anorak’s preoccupation). But the harder test is for Labour, which is not only fighting a tide of decline and lost confidence, but also brewing up a long-awaited argument about its future.
On a bad night, four major county councils could go – and that is from the diminished base of the “Iraq factor” local elections in 2004. “I remember,” one cabinet minister of the time recalls, “saying to my wife on the night that this was as bad as it gets. Silly me.”
One reason that this year’s poll may prove more prophetic of general election results than usual is that they allow David Cameron to test out his claim to reach the parts of Britain that the Tories have historically failed to reach.
Lancashire, where nine of Cameron’s top 100 target seats are located, is at the heart of the fray, along with other councils that would once have been beyond the Conservative orbit. First, the (sort of) good news for the government. A senior member of the shadow front bench says: “Before the expenses fiasco, this vote would have been a judgement on Gordon, pure and simple. Now it’s become a test of politics as a whole. So the outcome may not be so clear as we would have wished.”
In other words, if the story shifts from “Labour’s in trouble” to “They’re all at it”, that’s better than nothing.
However, with this moving target in mind, Cameron has rapidly changed his message. You cannot fault the man’s Usain Bolt-like reflexes. He has dropped that narky “We all know Gordon’s rubbish” tone, and adopted a mixture of anger and penitence aimed at his own miscreants. To this righteous anger, he adds a call for the “new politics” . . . which just happens to mean a Tory government, cast in the selfless spirit of “cleaning up the mess”.
Reality check: it’s far from obvious that an election fought in the present maelstrom could clear up anything. It would certainly clear out parliament, but not necessarily in any logical or just fashion. So far, no sufficient distinction has emerged about how to judge MPs who were claiming – fully within the rules – things that look foolish, but are not really wasteful or wrong (the 88p bath plug), and those who have been greedy in profiteering from the lax arrangements (let’s call it the Del Boy tendency).
Worse still is behaviour that could bring about criminal prosecution – or is so close to it as to make those involved politically toxic: Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and the Kirkbride-MacKay double mortgage claimants spring (so far) to mind.
Deciding between these three categories and how to treat them is a problem for both parties.
It makes more sense to deal with that, and then proceed to an election, than the other way round. Brown made an odd error in doling out his “completely unacceptable” judgement on one Labour cabinet figure only – Hazel Blears.
“It’s not an exact science,” says a close ally of the PM when I ask why he chose to rap the permanently perky Communities Secretary for abuse of the system. Others, not least his entrepreneurial serial mover and Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, look similarly compromised.
The PM is known to have a sectarian streak. He set out to make his tent bigger with the “cabinet of all the talents”, but abruptly shrank it again by singling out one person for blame. If the attack on Blears wasn’t revenge for her cheeky “YouTube if you want to” gibe, it looked like it was.
Now he is between a rock and a hard place. If he strips her of her cabinet job, he will look vindictive. If he backs off, he will look indecisive. “Better to have just whacked her on the day, along with anyone else he wanted out of the way,” says a former Labour whip (and Sopranos fan).
A cabinet cull is expected in the immediate aftermath of 4 June – indeed, it is the leader’s lifeline. With the Peter Mandelson restoration, Brown has shown that he can do reshuffle coups de théâtre.
This time, his options demand exact calculation as well as the element of surprise and some sense of strategy, rather than one of the random strikes that earned his predecessor’s clear-outs a bad name. He cannot be seen to reward anyone who has been prominently espoused as an imaginative claimant. Yet he also needs to show he still leads a government laying claim to the centre ground of politics.
As Cameron edges up in the polls by sloughing off the Tories’ reputation of being a voting option only for the firmly right-wing, Brown cannot afford to retreat to a dwindling left-wing base.
It is no exaggeration to say that the Prime Minister’s career now hangs on how he handles the hangover from a horrible night on 4 June.
A good night’s sleep is the one luxury Brown must allow himself. The sight of a leader who appears on the brink of exhaustion will only deepen the demoralised feeling in the ranks. A flurry of internal dissent about the reshuffle on top of lousy results, and the pressure for him to go could build very quickly.
“The Blairites are mobilising!” one deep throat in the party organisation texted me this week. On closer examination, the message turned out to mean that some of Labour’s centre-right standard-bearers were shifting behind Alan Johnson: their least worst alternative to Gordon. Johnson is the man to watch – without having done very much to merit the title, apart from not being someone else. It is little wonder he recommends PR. The Health Secretary is a kind of walking proportional representation: the least contentious candidate, without a clearly defined set of beliefs of his own on the direction of the party, but very pleasant with it. “The least hated member of cabinet,” says one colleague. With the public mood little short of lynching, that is no small achievement.
Some of the party’s young “new right” are prepared to back Johnson if it gets Brown out of the way, on the grounds that the PM is Labour’s main liability. “Alan’s malleable,” is the view of one. “And he’s a stop-gap candidate,” he adds, with the actuarial brutality of the under-forties.
The case for a leadership switch can be made only in the next few weeks, and for as long as the “October election” option remains on the boil.
It is a fallacy that leaders determine when we go to the polls. More often, the mood or the clock set the date. Brown’s strongest suit remains the glimmer of economic recovery, enabling him to focus on his single greatest strength and claim vindication. To get that far, however, he first needs to regain the patience of his party and the attention of voters.
The first week of the month will set out the scale of the task. Does it present a picture that is grim but can be altered? Or one that his own side knows is a terminal collapse from which any relief is welcome, the sooner the better?
That is the question that looms over Gordon’s very own Ides of June.
Anne McElvoy is political columnist for the London Evening Standard