Familiarity and contempt

Brown is convinced he must confirm his centrist credentials to prepare for the takeover, but it is a

Any idea of a stable and orderly transition is dead. The transfer of power between Tony Blair and his successor has been going on for 18 months. Negotiations have come and gone. Sometimes newspapers are briefed that a deal is in the offing, only for hostilities to resume within days.

It had always been Gordon Brown's intention that the handover of power would be carried out with dignity, that the shift would be seamless. This now seems laughable.

Charles Clarke's choreographed intervention, announcing on Radio 4 that the Prime Minister had lost his "sense of purpose and direction", was the latest sign that the government has entered its decadent phase. It is as if the architects of new Labour, their own careers now almost over, have decided the next election is lost.

The Chancellor's behaviour has contributed to the atmosphere of doom. His allies say he was merely clarifying his position on Britain's nuclear deterrent when he dropped the news that he supported the replacement of Trident into his Mansion House speech on 21 June. He was just clearing the air to end speculation that he might side with Labour's old anti-nuclear left, they say.

If so, why did Brown leave it so long? Some MPs believe he made his statement precisely to flush out opposition from the left. But, as a keen student of Labour history, he will know how divisive the issue has been.

The Chancellor is convinced he must confirm his centrist, new Labour credentials in preparation for the takeover, but it is a strange moment to spark civil war. Brown's stance means that many left-wingers who would once have supported his coronation will now not back him. They include his former cabinet ally Clare Short.

It now seems certain that the left will offer a candidate to challenge Brown's claim to the leadership. Michael Meacher's name has already been suggested, although the former environment minister has not formally announced he will stand. Glenda Jackson is another possible candidate.

John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington and chair of the 30-strong Campaign Group, looks almost certain to stand. He is likely to launch his leadership campaign at the Durham Miners' Gala on 8 July as a way of establishing his "real Labour" credentials. He will ask the socialist Labour Representation Committee, which he also chairs, to ratify his candidacy later in the month.

Don't write off the left

There is already talk of splits, with the prominent left-winger Alan Simpson backing Meacher, and the right-wing press is licking its lips at the prospect of an outbreak of old-style Labour instability and disorder.

Despite the bickering, the leadership would be wrong to write off the left of the party entirely. The Campaign Group was dismissed as irrelevant until the last general election, when it became clear that its members might become useful in any tight vote in the Commons.

And McDonnell does not fit the caricature of the hard-left demagogue. He is articulate and is not hysterical.

Indeed, there are a number of issues where McDonnell and others on the "hard left" have been vindicated. They were right about the dangers of intervention in Iraq; they were right to counsel caution on rampant private sector involvement in public services. And they were right to pour scorn on new Labour's love affair with the wealthy. But, as their detractors in the party point out, if you take a position of consistent hostility to everything the government does, you are bound to be right once in a while.

Nostalgic tribute

McDonnell is not the answer to Labour's problems and he will not be the next leader. That his candidacy will be announced at the miners' gala is a nostalgic tribute to Labour traditions. But the gala is now funded by English Heritage, which would suggest that this may not be the forward-looking, modern vision the party requires.

It is also quite possible that by flushing out a candidate from the Labour left, Brown will have given those to his right the same idea. Clarke was once talked about as just such a Blairite candidate, but is no longer a credible proposition as leader. However, his comments about the Prime Minister have stirred up the debate and his political insight remains sharp.

Asked by John Humphrys during his Radio 4 interview why Neil Kinnock failed to win the 1992 election, he said that after nine years, the public had grown tired of Kinnock as Labour leader.

There is a lesson here for Brown, who has been in the front line of British politics for nearly twice that long, if you include his time as a shadow frontbencher.

If the Blairites have any sense, they will opt for a challenger from the next generation without the burden of overfamiliarity.

A three-way contest would not be such a foregone conclusion.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, 7/7: one year on