The best thing to be said about the latest tragicomic episode in the decline and fall of New Labour, was that the latest coup attempt was at least quickly over. In fact, it was over almost before it began, on Wednesday lunchtime when the Labour former cabinet ministers, Patricia Hewitt and Geof Hoon launched their kamikaze raid on the Prime Minister’s bunker. The move was so preposterously mistimed – in the middle of the deepest freeze in thirty years and with an election campaign only weeks away – that no one in their right minds could take it seriously. Eighteen months ago, perhaps. Last summer, maybe. But on the eve of an election? Barking. Not so much the men in grey suits as the men in white coats.
The PM is someimrd compared with Joseph Stalin in his rigid approach to party loyalty, but Stalin never had to face anything so inept. It’s as if the plotters had all liquidated themselves instead of targeting their leader. No need for show trials with enemies like these. One MP said that Charles Clarke, the arch Blairite former health secretary who has was one of the ringleaders, was like “a suicide bomber who only kills his own friends and family”.
The midwinter mutineers had clearly hoped finally to winkle out Gordon Brown’s cabinet critics, bouncing them into the open, but even this was botched. They briefed journalists to the effect that the Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy, was one of those willing to wield the knife. Anyone who knows the ultra-loyalist Murphy would realise that this was ridiculous, as Murphy made clear on his own website. New media is adding an interesting new dimension to political coverage. Unattributable briefings can be almost instantly denied now by politicians writing in their own blogs, making it much more difficult for malicious rumours to spread,
Indeed, you might call this an analogue coup in a digital age. Things move too fast now, with twenty four hour news and the internet, for backstage plots to work. The cabinet ‘rebels’ couldn’t afford to wait around to see if there was much support for the plot on the backbenches before deciding which way to jump. It was back Brown or sack him within hours – delaying for six hours made David Miliband look like a dangerous rebel.
The prime minister is damaged, of course, by this latest challenge to his leadership, however farcical. It confirms the continuing dissent in the party and the government over his leadership, while also making the Labour party look a laughing stock. Piss ups and breweries come inevitably to mind. If they can’t organise a coup properly, how can they be expected to run the country? If David Miliband is the best they have got, then God help all of us if he ever becomes prime minister.
The boy wonder may charm women of a certain age, like Hillary Clinton, but he is manifestly unsuited to the role of leadership. Three abortive coups have been mounted in his interest, leaving a trail of ministerial casualties in their wake. The first was sparked by Miliband himself when he set out his stall in a Guardian article before the 2008 Labour conference, announcing that the party needed a new direction. That ended famously with Miliband wagging a banana disconsolately at the cameras after he disowned the rebellion he had inspired. But among those who lost their careers as a result was junior minister, Siobhan McDonagh and the former Scottish secretary, David Cairns. Then in June 2009, the high-flighing cabinet minister, James Purnell, committed political suicide by leading a ministerial walkout following Labour’s disastrous showing in the European elections, when they came third after UKIP. Miliband sat on his hands and then backed Brown – just as he did this week. His belated endorsement on Wednesday sounding about as enthusiastic as a sun cream salesman in mid winter. Hewitt, Hoon and Clarke now have to answer to their constituency associations for their incomprehensible act of pre-election treachery and will justifiably find their true place in the rogues gallery of Labour hate figures.
But there was more. The cabinet ministers who denied joining the plot then briefed journalists to the effect that they had all wrung concessions from Gordon Brown on the back of it. Alistair Darling got assurances on the government being more honest about spending cuts, Harriet Harman on being less nasty and blokeish, and Jack Straw, that Brown would abandon the class war against Tory toffs. This made matters even worse, confirming the depths of cabinet discontent with Brown and making it look as if the PM was being held hostage by his own cabinet.
Needless to say, the Tories are laughing like a drain. After all, it was the week when David Cameron admitted he had “messed up” his own manifesto pledge on tax relief to married couples. It doesn’t get much worse than that, and yet it was Labour that crashed and burned. This inept and divided government will surely now drift aimlessly to defeat in May when Gordon Brown finally meets his date with the voters. Though no doubt he will be looking for any pretext for delay, arguing that the risk of an asteroid hitting the earth means an election would not be in the national interest.
For what it’s worth, Alan Johnson, the affable home secretary is the probably winner in the leadership stakes. His humility and loyalty will have elevated him in the eyes of the party, since he was the only member of the cabinet who wasn’t looking out for number one last week. A shoo-in when Brown goes. Lord Mandelson of Foy consolidates his place as Her Majesty’s Fixer-in-Waiting. Mandy was once again the centre of attention as he offered just enough support to Brown to make it look as if he were indispensable to the government while carefully distancing himself from his boss.
And for Labour? Well, the immediate future looks bleak. The party will be racked with recrimination and remorse after defeat at the election. Brown is hoping to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats, but Nick Clegg is making clear they don’t want a deal with him. This Labour government, and Brown personally, will be in the dock of history for the most irresponsible credit boom since the South Sea Bubble. But at least in opposition Labour will be able to rediscover its soul. That’s if it still has one.