When the history books are written, will they say that two prominent women brought down Gordon Brown? Jacqui Smith’s confirmation on 2 June that she would resign as Home Secretary in the imminent cabinet reshuffle was bad enough. Hazel Blears’s resignation on 3 June was much more explosive, a declaration of war by someone whose loyalty to her party is beyond doubt.
The timing could hardly have been worse, coming on the eve of Thursday’s local and European Parliament elections, in which Labour already faced a rout in the wake of the scandal over MPs’ expenses.
The reshuffle, a “national plan” for economic recovery and a raft of constitutional reforms to revive a discredited political system, were the three elements in the fightback Brown knew he would need to make after the elections. But his strategy lay in ruins as ministers announced their resignations before he could decide his cabinet shake-up.
It was the expenses affair that triggered the reshuffle chaos. Smith was the first victim of the leaked disk containing the claims by all 646 MPs. Blears was another casualty; she was forced by Brown to pay £13,000 to cover capital gains tax on the sale of her London flat, and he alienated her by condemning her actions as “totally unacceptable”. Alistair Darling’s chances of remaining as Chancellor were thrown into doubt when he repaid £700 of allowances claimed for his London flat.
Brownites insist that Blears’s remarkable act was an isolated move and not part of a co-ordinated plot to unseat the Prime Minister. There are claims that Smith refused to join Blears in an orchestrated double resignation. Brown allies are adamant that he will not be pushed out, and will fight to keep his job.
The crucial question now is whether other Blairites will back Blears by refusing to serve in the new-look cabinet planned by Brown or by joining the inevitable backbench moves to oust him. Ironically, the pivotal figure could be Lord Mandelson, whose long feud with Brown ended last October when he was recalled to the cabinet: younger Blairite Turks may take their lead from the Business Secretary.
Even if Brown manages to hold the line in the cabinet and “lock in” potential critics, the Prime Minister faces a campaign of insurrection from demoralised Labour backbenchers, many of whom now believe they have nothing to lose by kicking Brown out and replacing him with Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, in the hope of averting a general election massacre. “There could be organised chaos,” one Brown critic warned darkly. A former cabinet minister put Brown’s survival chances at “less than 50-50” after Blears’s resignation.
Apart from Mandelson, Johnson is the man to watch. He does not want blood on his hands. But he has just raised his profile at a critical moment and in a revealing way, by announcing his conversion to proportional representation (PR) at general elections. He backs the Alternative Vote Plus system recommended by the Jenkins Commission in 1998. There is no cabinet agreement on this and it is unlikely to feature in Labour’s manifesto, although there is a growing consensus for a simple Alternative Vote (AV) system. This would retain the link between all MPs and their constituencies, without the proportional top-ups proposed by Jenkins.
The Health Secretary’s move delighted constitutional reformers, who sense an unexpected opportunity to revive many of the ideas for which they have campaigned for years. It also increases the prospect of a deal between Labour and the Liberal Democrats to keep the Tories out in the event of a hung parliament. Privately, senior Lib Dems believe that Johnson is not a contaminated brand like Brown. Some Lib Dems even think such an agreement might be possible with Brown if he survives the current storm, and uses the green shoots of economic recovery to avoid
a general election defeat.
Labour optimists – and there are not many in these dark days for the party – also see scope for a post-election deal with the Lib Dems. They accept the general election will be fought on the economy rather than MPs’ expenses or constitutional reform. But in a hung parliament, the prominence of reform on the agenda could bring Labour and the Lib Dems together. Although Nick Clegg will keep his options open, he is seen by colleagues as a man unlikely to link up with the Tories because of fundamental differences with them over the economy, public services and Europe.
There will be no talk of a Lib-Lab pact before an election. The Lib Dems will not cosy up to Labour in the way that Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair did before 1997. Clegg’s party is wary of another betrayal. And it would be counter-productive to get close to a Labour government when it seems to be heading fast towards the exit door. Far better to be insurgents and capture Labour seats in the north of England to offset possible losses to the Tories in the south.
A formal coalition is unlikely; more realistic would be an arrangement under which the Lib Dems support Labour in key votes in return for progress on reform. They would probably settle for AV as a first step, coupled with a review into making the voting system proportional at a later stage.
There is another scenario, which at present looks much more plausible: Labour suffers a crushing general election defeat and the remaining rump has nowhere else to go but to link up with the Lib Dems (possibly without a union-funded, left-wing breakaway). The Blair-Ashdown project to realign the two centre-left parties would be achieved, albeit in the wilderness of opposition.
The credibility hurdle Labour must jump is high. In media interviews this week, Brown reassured us that he had always been interested in a written constitution – an idea now very much on the agenda of the cabinet, whose meeting last Tuesday was dominated by how to take forward the reform programme. It is true that Brown floated such changes while he was Chancellor. But when he became Prime Minister, he lacked the drive needed to force them through a sceptical cabinet, several of whom warned him there were “no votes” in constitutional change.
It was Brown, along with John Prescott, who blocked Blair’s attempt to press ahead with a close alliance with the Lib Dems, based on a joint programme of reform, even after winning his 1997 landslide. In his recently published memoirs, Ashdown recalls that Brown and Prescott “had made clear their virulent opposition” to a coalition, with senior Lib Dems sitting in the cabinet. Instead, Blair was forced to adopt a looser relationship through a joint cabinet committee, which fizzled out.
Although it has the power to act, Labour will not have a free run on the reform agenda. The Tories may oppose electoral reform and have little intention of implementing their policy of a mainly elected second chamber if they win power. But David Cameron knows how to grab a headline and has appeared to keep one step ahead of Brown over both expenses and constitutional reform.
The Lib Dems are the genuine article on reform; they are united in support of it. Change you can believe in has more credibility than the frantic scramble by the two biggest parties to champion ideas they would simply not be talking about without today’s febrile atmosphere. We are all reformers now.
It will certainly not feel like it for the Prime Minister this weekend as he faces an uphill struggle to survive, but the volatility of politics offers opportunities as well as threats. The game now seems more unpredictable than ever.
“We have been given one more chance to get it right on constitutional reform,” says one Brown aide. “This time, we have got to take it.”
Andrew Grice is political editor of the Independent