“Out of the night that covers me; Black as the Pit from pole to pole; I thank whatever gods may be; For my unconquereble soul”. Those who’ve been speculating about the Prime Minister’s state of mind had further material yesterday in those lines from “Invictus” by the High Victorian poet William E Henley, which Gordon Brown says consoled him during his recent trials. The poem also gave moral sustainance to Nelson Mandela when he was incarcertated in Robben Island.
Make of that what you will. Certainly, there is a darkness surrounding Gordon Brown’s personality. But there is also defiance, dogged determination. He is, in lines from the same poem, “bloody, but unbowed”, a fighter not a quitter. Which makes it all the more bizarre that the leaders of the Midwinter Mutiny last week bothered with their comic-opera coup. Over the past week, commentators struggled to explain why two senior Labour politicians, Geof Hoon and Patricia Hewitt – not noted for their rebelliousness in the past – should have launched their revolt when they hadn’t even secured the backing of any cabinet ministers, let alone significant back bench support. Surely they realised that this prime minister would need a whole army of grey suits to prise his bitten finger nails from the door of Number Ten.
It didn’t make sense, and it still doesn’t. Why did Hoowitt choose to strike in the very week when Labour appeared to be recovering in the opinion polls and Gordon Brown had his best outing at Prime Minister’s Question Time in months? Why, indeed, launch an attack on the Labour leadership at the very moment when the Tory leader, David Cameron, had stumbled into his worst policy error since he became leader over tax reliefs for married couples? Do they want Labour to lose the election? A BBC/Daily Politics poll on Thursday showed that 60% now believe Labour is the most divided party – and as we know a house divided is a house defeated.
Well maybe they do want Labour to lose. It may seem unbelievable that Labour politicians who have devoted their lives to the Labour Party would actually want to lose the general election. We haven’t had that kind of active disloyalty since the days of the far Left Militant Tendency that tried to wreck the Labour government of Jim Callaghan in the 1970s. But I’m having great difficulty coming up with any other explanation. It’s not the first time either. Think back to the ‘Night of the Stilletos’ in June when three women cabinet ministers resigned along with the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell. That was on the eve of the European elections, which Labour went on to lose so badly that it came third behind UKIP. Even then Brown stayed put.
Could it be that Blairite diehards are now afraid Brown might remain in charge even after a general election defeat? Are they now trying to ensure that Labour goes down so badly that there is no question of Brown remaining as leader? I’m beginning to think that this is the only plausible explanation. Certainly, the destabilisation campaign is continuing. Yesterday, Geof Hoon released highly damaging correspondence to the Sunday Times suggesting that the Prime Minister vetoed the purchase of vital military helicopters for British troops fighting in Afghanistan. This is tantamount to saying that Gordon Brown endangered the lives of British soldiers. Serious stuff – especially since Hoon, the former defence secreatary, is due to appear before the Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq War. Moreover, the current defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth a close friend of Hoon, is thought to be on the point of resignation over the situation in Afghanistan.
In another move clearly designed to destabilise the Prime Minister, the former general secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt, has said that Gordon Brown is not fit to be in Number Ten. In a book serialised in the Mail on Sunday he gives further evidence of the PM’s unpopularity in his own government. He quotes one of Brown’s longest and closest political allies, the development secretary, Douglas Alexander, as saying: “We’ve spent 10 years working with Gordon and we don;t like him. The more the public get to know him he less they will like him too.” Watt also reveals bungling and treachery over the abortive 2007 election-that-never-was and over the “donorgate” affair when businessman David Abrahams was allowed to disguise his cash payments to Labour by registering them under false names. The former general secretary claims he was lied to and set up by Brown.
The Watt revelations are clearly motivated by personal grievance , and some of the charges – such as that Gordon Brown sulked at a dinner party with US politicians – are faintly ridiculous. Nevertheless, scheduling this embarrassing account of domestic life in the Brown cabinet on the eve of a crucial general election campaign remains highly damaging, and calculating. Watt’s actions should surely be condemned by every member of the Labour Party. Indeed, you wonder how the party can expect its footsoldiers to start canvassing the icy doorsteps this winter when the leadership seems to have acquired a death wish. But once again, this could be exactly what the Blairites want: to so weaken Labour morale as to guarantee a Tory landslide.
If this is indeed all part of a ‘scorched earth’ campaign by the New Labour old guard – and I’m not the only person who’s thinking this – then the sections of the party that are not determined to lose the election need to consider how they respond. It’s one thing to believe privately that Brown isn’t up to it; quite another to side with the Tories. Retaliation is necessary, but it is hard to fight back without making he party look even more divided.
Brown’s last line of defence is the Scottish MPs who have in the past acted as defenders of Labour’s core values and as his Praetorian Guard. Perhaps they need to make a move now to isolate the Right and ensure that Labour, under Brown, fights a principled campaign based on social democratic policies. Following the financial crisis, and given the behaviour of the banks, this should be Labour’s moment. The public are waiting for a lead against the plutocrats and banksters. It isn’t too late. Time for all good men, and women, to come to the aid of the party.