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4 September 2008updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

Five stark truths

The summer did not bring a coup against Gordon Brown, but during this time some ine

By Martin Bright

Just by way of a thought experiment, let’s try to be as generous as possible to Gordon Brown and his beleaguered government. It has become tiresome watching the Prime Minister’s best friends in the media turn against him, so why not try to view the world as No 10 would have us see it? With some effort, it would be possible to characterise Brown’s fortunes as follows.

The catastrophe of the Glasgow East by-election in July was always likely to give rise to speculation about the Labour leadership. David Miliband’s intervention over the summer was unfortunate, but the Prime Minister has put the incident behind him and has worked well with his Foreign Secretary over the crisis in Georgia. A leadership challenge is now unlikely and Brown and Miliband have returned to work determined to “get on with the job”. Alistair Darling’s holiday interview with the Guardian was misjudged, but the Prime Minister has put that, too, behind him and collaborated with the Chancellor on the new package of housing measures, including the stamp duty holiday. The cabinet is not riven with dissent and Jack Straw has not offered himself up as a caretaker leader.

Meanwhile, talk of a rift between Brown’s old guard of advisers and the team brought in by his new head of strategy, Stephen Carter, is vastly overstated and everybody is now working together with a united purpose. Despite media speculation, a reshuffle was never a realistic option for September and Brown will wait until later in the year. As for the much-trailed “recovery plan”, this should be more accurately described as a series of targeted measures, designed to help British people most at risk from the effects of the economic downturn. Demands for a windfall tax on energy companies will be taken on board, but the PM will attempt to reach a consensus with the energy companies before resorting to punitive measures.

Loss of confidence

Read this series of statements enough times and it begins to gel into something resembling a coherent narrative. Some of it is even true. However, the real trouble is that the government has lost confidence in itself to such a degree that it no longer has the wherewithal to persuade anyone, including its own MPs, that it is convinced of its own message.

In truth, the situation is desperate. As the New Statesman goes to press, the Prime Minister will be preparing to steady business nerves at an important speech to the Confederation of British Industry. From there, he will be dealing with shaky ministerial nerves at the cabinet meeting to be held in Birmingham on Friday. He will then work on his speech over the weekend to calm trade union nerves at the TUC on Tuesday. The famous prime ministerial fingernails will be bitten to the bone by the time he stands before his party conference at the end of the month.

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The summer did not bring the promised “Blairite” coup, but nor did it bring a Brownite recovery. During this time, five stark truths have emerged:

If there is to be a challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership, it must happen in the next few weeks. David Miliband had his chance to stand against Brown in the Labour leadership election. And, after the events of the summer, when his article in the Guardian represented a very real threat to Gordon Brown’s authority, he cannot retreat again without running the risk of being labelled a “bottler”.

No one within the Labour machine has come up with a coherent attack strategy that has come close to uniting the party against the common enemy of Cameron’s Conservatives. The Tory leader has been given an easy ride by the media, but he has not been challenged by a systematic critique of his policies from the government.

As Charles Clarke exemplifies in his article in the New Statesman overleaf, back-bench MPs who care deeply about the future of the Labour Party are running out of patience. Whatever way the Brown camp chooses to label such malcontents, they are growing in number and they will not remain quiet for much longer.

The Labour Party is in an unprecedented crisis. If it carries on as it is, it will lose the next election by a landslide. The consequences could be worse even than those that followed the election defeats of 1983 and 1987, because no one realistically expected Labour to win them. The next UK general election should have been a closely fought contest and the recriminations within Labour for a heavy defeat will be severe.

The present economic situation would test even a robust government united under a popular leader. Apart from Jack Straw, no one in the cabinet has experienced such bad times before, and the strain is showing. If, as predicted, the British economy is the first in Europe to enter recession, we will enter unknown territory.

Many in the party now believe that the only honourable way out of the current bind is for Gordon Brown to fall on his sword. If he stood down and allowed a full platform of leadership contenders to come forward, he would go down in history as the man who put his personal vanity and ambition behind the greater good of the party he loves. In the end, this could be the most generous narrative of all.

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