Most Labour MPs (including Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke if the truth be known) now accept that Gordon Brown will be the next leader of the party. Yet except for the Chancellor’s declared loyalists, there is no great wave of enthusiasm.
After nearly ten years of Labour government this should come as no surprise and it would be too harsh to blame it entirely on Brown himself. But it is he who must deal with the reality of Labour despondency and rally his troops. Labour MPs now fall into a set of distinct camps. Firstly there are those who suspect the game is up and the political pendulum is swinging back to the Conservatives.
This group contains some ministers as well as a number of disillusioned backbenchers. Then there are those want Tony Blair to stand aside immediately because they believe Brown will revive the party’s fortunes once he gets hold of the reins of power. I have even had one close ministerial ally of the Prime Minister outline this scenario to me. A small number still hold out hope that a credible challenger will emerge, although it is difficult to imagine who that might be as Alan Johnson, John Reid and David Miliband have all but ruled themselves out. But there is fourth, deeply intriguing category of those who would put Brown on probation for a year. If the polls are still as bad as they are now for the Labour Party, a delegation would go to Brown and tell him to step down as Prime Minister. A ten-point gap is thought to be the tipping point.
This may sound absurd in circumstances where Gordon Brown’s position appears almost unassailable. But his probation year could present some serious difficulties for the new Prime Minister. Already there are signs of serious trade union discontent over the Chancellor’s belt-tightening squeeze on public sector pay. His allies claim that his tough statement sealed his reputation as the Iron Chancellor, prepared to make difficult decisions in the interests of the country. But nurses on picket lines turn “tough” into “cruel”. Brown’s attempt to head off Tory claims of profligacy could all too easily alienate the Labour core vote. At the same time, Brown will have to take the flak for a growing discontent over hospital closures, which he and health secretary Patricia Hewitt have yet to sell as a harsh but necessary element of health service reform.
Meanwhile, Labour is in disarray. Those around Gordon Brown are deeply frustrated that the headlines last week were dominated by factional skirmishes within the party and wild speculation about a leadership challenge to the Chancellor from Environment Secretary David Miliband.
Looked at from the Treasury, the timing of the launch of “2020 Vision”, a website to discuss the future of Labour Party policy set up by the ultra-Blairite former Cabinet Ministers Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke could not have been worse. The launch was viewed as a massive act of aggression by No 11 akin to an open declaration of war.
Brown was forced to “welcome” the call for a debate, but it is worth looking closely at his spokesman’s actual words. He explained that Brown welcomed any “unified, constructive and forward-looking” debate on the future of the Labour Party. But as one Brownite source explained to me, as Milburn and Clarke were clearly intent on being “divisive, destructive and backward-looking”, the website launch did not qualify as a useful contribution to the debate.
I am told the Chancellor is not unduly concerned by the events of the week. Clarke and Miliband will remain a serious irritant, but without a credible candidate, their leadership challenge will remain little more than a sideshow.
As backbenchers returned to their constituencies this weekend, I doubt if there was a single one who found their mailbox crammed with letters urging them to throw their weight behind “2020 Vision” or a David Miliband challenge to Gordon Brown.
So what happens next? There are those in the Brown camp who believe that last week’s events amount to a leadership challenge by the Blairite “ultras” and that the Chancellor should react accordingly by setting preparations for his campaign in train. Brown has always resisted this, believing that it is better to get on with the job in hand, but now Clarke and Miliband have set out their stall in Westminster, MPs themselves may insist that Brown do the same.
In the weeks and months to come there will be four significant tests of loyalty to the Prime Minister in waiting. The first is the Chancellor’s 10th budget and his last as chancellor. Any Blairite sniping will be viewed as “extreme disloyalty” according to my Treasury sources. Although Gordon Brown has been reaching out to the next generation of Blairite ministers such as Andy Burnham, James Purnell and Liam Byrne, he will expect complete devotion in return.
Local elections and elections in Scotland and Wales will provide a tempting second opportunity to question the Chancellor’s strategy if the results go as badly for Labour as expected. Again only total unity and discipline will be tolerated.
The third will be the aftermath of the leadership contest itself when critics will be expected to remain silent if they have not put up a candidate for the election itself. The final and ultimate test will be after the coronation itself, when Gordon Brown will demand a discipline and loyalty unimagined even in the days of Blairite control freakery.
At each stage the stakes will be higher for Labour, which is why Gordon Brown and his allies are hoping that this week’s act of wanton treachery by Clarke and Milburn is the last throw of the Blairite dice. But as one former Blairite minister told me last week, there is the alternative plan which would allow Gordon to become Prime Minister in the hope that he will turn things around. “But if the polls are catastrophic after a year, it will get brutal” he said. “We have David Miliband waiting in the wings if he fails.”