Gordon Brown is in serious trouble. That much is obvious now, even to the most devoted members of his inner circle. Just three weeks before the Budget, authority is leaching from the Chancellor. The polling is worrying enough, with the latest ICM survey giving the Conservatives a 13-point lead in the event of a Cameron/Brown contest. Those around Brown have known for some time from their own internal polling that their man cannot win a head-to-head beauty contest. They take comfort from separate polling evidence which suggests that the British public still trusts the Chancellor more than David Cameron.
This view was bolstered by a poll of 100 leading figures from the City, industry, media and politics carried out by Opinion Leader Research, which showed that 87 per cent believed what the Chancellor said, compared to 58 per cent for Cameron.
Yet this merely serves to underline the fundamental problem facing the Labour Party: it may be the case that most informed people from the political classes, the chattering classes, even the business classes, know that Brown will make a better prime minister than Cameron, but that it may not prove enough to win him the next election.
The launch of a website by Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, ostensibly to discuss the future direction of Labour party policy, could not have come at a worse moment for Brown. However, its launch marks the official entry of Clarke into the camp of the Blairite “ultras”, joining Milburn and Stephen Byers. At one time this internet venture might have been dismissed as the vanity project of two bitter and irrelevant figures. And the fact that Brown has been forced to “welcome” the latest attempt to initiate debate is a sign that he is rattled. The website is a direct challenge to Brown from two of his staunchest critics. Neither man can now challenge for the leadership, but they can still run an effective guerrilla campaign that could do long-term damage.
They know that the doubt crept in long ago. The latest relaunch of Brown’s “Britishness” agenda was tired and uninspiring. The suggestion that immigrants should do community work before gaining citizenship was too easily dismissed as a gimmick.
There are those who believe that the entry of Michael Meacher into the leadership contest has provided Brown with the perfect opponent: a man who represents everything he and Tony Blair swept aside when they created new Labour. According to this line of argument, Meacher is the living reminder to party members of why Labour was out of power for the best part of two decades.
But I’m not convinced this is the case. There is now the real risk that the leadership contest could turn not into a coronation, but a farce.
It is extremely unlikely that Meacher will gain the number of back-bench supporters necessary to stand, but his very presence as a potential candidate could have a negative effect on Brown precisely because he is associated in the public imagination with Labour’s past. He could drag the contest down with him.
The same does not apply to John McDonnell, the only other candidate to declare against Brown, whose campaign quite properly represents the traditional socialist Labour left which has remained loyal to the party. McDonnell has always said that his main motivation for standing was his belief that the next Labour leader needs to be elected with a genuine democratic mandate. He is realistic about his chances, but he is right that Brown needs an opponent.
Labour backbenchers are already discussing a nightmare option that could have catastrophic consequences for the future of the party. “What if Gordon is still 10 points behind in the polls this time next year?” they say. Some former ministers (and not just the ultras) are already beginning to talk seriously about allowing Brown to succeed to the premiership and then putting him on probation. If he failed to boost Labour’s ratings in the polls, he would be persuaded to do the honourable thing.
Unlike Blair, Brown loves the Labour Party, and those talking about the probation option believe he would stand down if he thought he was becoming a liability. After all, they know he has form going back to the fateful decision to step aside in favour of Blair in the last Labour leadership contest 13 years ago.
It is a sign of an incipient madness within the Labour Party that anyone is considering such a suicidal strategy. A second leadership contest would guarantee a Conservative victory at the next election. It would be absurd to expect a senior figure from the cabinet such as John Reid to stand against Brown simply to give him the authority to tackle the Cameron threat. However, someone must stand. They should see it as their duty, because the Labour Party’s survival could depend on it.