It was the same with “cash for honours” – from the outset, the political class (including many journalists) made out that this was a storm in a teacup. The suspicion that very rich men were buying influence with the party of government was either nothing new or not a story even though, if true, this was a serious crime.
Until this weekend the Westminster village was in denial about the gravity of the crisis in which Gordon Brown finds himself. It was not so much what Joan Ryan said: that Labour MPs up to cabinet level have serious doubts about the Prime Minister. The problem is that it is undeniable. Everybody who has any contact with the parliamentary Labour Party knows this. The laughable idea that Charles Clarke’s intervention in the New Statesman was met with silence has been blown apart by the events of this weekend. His was not a lone voice.
It is just not good enough to dismiss the MPs who have come forward to demand a leadership election as a “Blairite rump”. The numbers may be small but they are growing. What’s more, these are people who know the mood of the party, not maverick outsiders. Joan Ryan was the Labour vice-chair and Siobhan McDonagh was a whip. Peter Kilfolyle was one of the architects of New Labour and has deep respect throughout the Labour Party and beyond. And the names keep coming: Frank Field, Fiona McTaggart, Graham Stringer. Seven former ministers have signed a Progress article saying that Labour is suffering a “malaise”.
The Prime Minister should realise that for every MP who has raised his or her head over the parapet there are three or more that feel the same way. There can be little doubt now that a candidate of substance would gain the 70-odd nominations necessary to trigger a ballot.
There is no sign of the officer class of the Cabinet joining the infantry in the trenches yet. But John Hutton’s lukewark support for the Prime Minister on the Andrew Marr programme was more than cancelled out by his refusal to condemn the actions of those calling for a leadership contest. Saying that the moment is not right is not the same as ruling out a future contest.