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First among equals

Gordon Brown has survived, but humiliated and with his powers reduced. What can he do now?

The wood-panelled committee rooms inside the Palace of Westminster have been the scene of countless plots, rows and splits. In the late 19th century, the Irish nationalist leader Charles Parnell stood up in Committee Room 15 to face down a rebellion from his own party colleagues, threatening: “If I go, I go for ever,” before challenging his MPs: “Who is the master of this party?” Parnell’s gambit failed. The majority of his MPs walked out on him and the Irish Parliamentary Party split for more than a decade.

On Monday evening, confronting a demoralised and divided parliamentary party of his own, Gordon Brown took a different line, one more conciliatory and self-critical, as it became apparent that he had survived to lead the Labour Party into the next general election. Standing at the front of a crowded Committee Room 14, overlooking the Thames, in the wake of the party’s worst national election results since 1918, Brown began by striking a note of humility. “I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses. I know I need to improve,” he acknowledged. “There are some things I do well and some things I do not so well. I know I have got to keep learning all the time.”

So, we wonder, what lessons has the leadership crisis taught our embattled Prime Minister? First: know who your friends are. Brown has discovered over this past week who his political friends really are – and they defy the conventional Blairite/Brownite labels. With cabinet resignations from James Purnell, Hazel Blears, Geoff Hoon and John Hutton, and the call by Lord Falconer for Brown to go, the rebels’ attempt to unseat Brown had been characterised as a “Blairite coup”. Yet the man once seen as the “über-Blairite”, Lord Mandelson, has stayed unusually loyal to Brown, and, in his new and expanded role as First Secretary of State, is now the premier’s de facto deputy. Other prominent “Blairites” who have stayed onboard and refused to jump ship include the two much-vaunted heirs to the prime ministerial throne, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the newly promoted Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. (As Johnson tells the New Statesman on page 22: “I don’t believe anyone could do the job better than Gordon Brown.”)

The promotion to the cabinet of Lord Adonis, as Transport Secretary, is another significant, if overlooked, aspect of the reshuffle. The former SDP member is exactly the sort of “ultra-moderniser” and dyed-in-the-wool Blairite who – if there were significant ideological differences between the Prime Minister and his backbench critics – would be leading the calls for Brown to go. Instead, he told the New Statesman that he has utmost confidence in the PM. “Gordon Brown is the right leader to take the party and the government forward in this time of economic crisis. On the big economic challenges he has led us with vision and confidence, and that is what matters above all to our electoral prospects.”

It is not simply former Blairites who have rallied around Brown. The Compass group of left-wing MPs, led by Jon Cruddas, has consistently refused to be part of any plots – and now will have to be kept onside with some form of compromise on contentious issues such as part-privatisation of Royal Mail. Another surprising Brown supporter is his former bête noire, Ken Livingstone, who has come out fighting on behalf of the PM. “I am against the parliamentary party imposing a leader on the rest of the party, particularly when those agitating for the coup are not arguing for any better policies and, overall, want worse ones,” the former London mayor told the New Statesman. “I don’t buy a lot of this stuff that Brown represents all that is bad in politics in terms of spin or bullying – many of those making these arguments supported all the stitch-ups and control-freakery when Blair was leader.”

Thus, the failed coup has given Brown the opportunity, for the first time in his premiership, to cement a broad coalition of support around his leadership, and his policies, from across different branches of the party. The second lesson is: know your limits. The system of prime ministerial government is over. Gordon Brown, through no choice of his own, now presides over his cabinet as primus inter pares, or first among equals. The chaotic reshuffle exposed his lack of authority as never before – so much so, that he even came close to destroying his own government in an attempt to appoint his protégé Ed Balls as chancellor. He offered Balls’s current job of Schools Secretary to James Purnell, sparking the latter’s resignation, and asked Alistair Darling to move over to the Home Office. The New Statesman has learned how close to meltdown the Brown administration came: Darling said he would resign from the cabinet if Brown forced him to move, a resignation that, unlike Purnell’s, would have brought down the government.

“Gordon was careering along the road towards a big crash,” said one cabinet minister. “Then, just at the last minute, someone grabbed the wheel and averted it.”

Cabinet government is now the order of the day – and Brown has learned a humiliating lesson: that he needs his senior ministers more than they need him. The third lesson to be learned is: actions speak louder than words. Brown has always been at his strongest when at his busiest, and it is time for him to lay out his vision for the future – not through speeches, interviews or articles, but through policies, specific actions and visible changes. “He has insisted on staying,” one MP said. “Now he must show us why.” One Downing Street insider explains the new strategy: “You will see first a series of political reforms to the system, and then a fresh, second economic package.”

The “political reforms” being floated by No 10 include the most crucial of all – a change to the voting system, as well as a fully elected second chamber. Yet, even here, there are pitfalls. Any attempt at electoral reform will be seen as manipulation of the “rules of the game”, unless Brown adopts his new Home Secretary’s suggestion of a referendum on election day. Similarly, the abolition of life peers will be difficult to advocate with seven peers now among the 33 ministers allowed to attend cabinet. The PM may find one short-term compromise in ridding the Lords of the last of its 92 hereditary peers.

In the end, however, the election is still likely to be won or lost on the economy – and, for Brown to have a hope of succeeding on this front, three things need to happen. The political agenda must shift back on to the economy; the UK economy needs to start showing those fabled green shoots of recovery; and Brown needs to ensure he gets the credit for that recovery, when it comes.

Brown’s critics disagree; they say it is too late to turn the tide of public opinion. But is it? The pollster Peter Kellner, of YouGov, points out that swaths of the electorate have indeed “made up their minds” – but not all of them. “I don’t see any reason why Brown’s ratings shouldn’t recover, at least to some extent,” he says. “I think we will see some closing of the gap [between Labour and the Tories].”
Kellner points to three separate occasions on which Brown confounded his critics and had a “bounce” in the polls: in the wake of the terrorist attacks at the start of his “honeymoon” period in mid-2007; during his deft handling of the banking crisis in the autumn of 2008; and after co-ordinating the G20 summit’s response to the global economic downturn in spring this year.

With the Tories’ share of the vote in the European elections up by just one percentage point on 2004, there is nothing to stop Brown from staging some sort of semi-comeback in the months ahead, and Labour MPs seem belatedly to have realised that their best, not to mention only, hope remains under his substantive yet flawed leadership. The alternative – the carnage of a protracted leadership contest involving up to five or six candidates, followed by an immediate general election – would be far worse. Meanwhile, Brown himself will not budge. At no point over the past week did he consider resigning.

So now Labour MPs face a choice: do they rally round, some begrudgingly, or do they allow any more of what David Blunkett has called political “bloodletting”? The choice, in effect, has already been made: either they help Labour under Brown, or they help the Conservatives under Cameron. There is no third option.

On Monday evening at the PLP meeting in Committee Room 14, the voice of one particular man, who carries the scars of fratricide, sectarianism and disunity on his back, stood out above the din. “In politics,” warned Neil Kinnock, “division carries the death penalty.”

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!