By Macintyre, James
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 138, No. 4948
Shortly after the 2001 general election, a meeting took place in Downing Street to discuss the idea of part-privatisation of the Royal Mail. It was attended by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the then chancellor, Charles Clarke, party chairman, and Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary. There was general agreement that if the Royal Mail was to be privatised, timing would be all important-even Margaret Thatcher had resisted such a move. It was suggested that any privatisation should be implemented early in the parliamentary term to minimise the effect at the next election. But, according to one official present at the meeting, the plan to privatise the Post Office was blocked by one Gordon Brown.
Now, with 150 Labour MPs set to vote against the government's proposal for a 30 percent part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, the issue has returned to torment the Prime Minister at a time of heightened crisis. Damaging reports have emerged that Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, is encouraging rebellion against the bill, which has been brought forward by his old enemy Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary. Once again, Labour is divided over a fundamental issue and, as the government looks set to rely on Conservative support on the Post Office vote next month, the Prime Minister's position is inevitably once more being questioned: will he lose another vote because of a Labour backbench rebellion?
Amid the excitement of the moment, however, some sober perspective: the next general election is at least a year away, and Brown remains all but certain to lead Labour into it. For all the fresh talk of a government in "crisis", for all the speculation about leadership alternatives, for all the relentless, anti-Labour coverage in the media, the Prime Minister remains convinced that he is the right man to lead the country out of recession. "He is hunkering down this week, and getting on with the job," according to someone close to him.
There is nothing new about the current crisis of confidence among Labour MPs. Brown has been subjected to speculation about his prime ministership since autumn 2007, when he decided against calling a snap election. He has experienced extreme highs and lows in popularity, with several switches of fortunes, as if his fate were down to a version of political musical chairs. The sense of "crisis" last summer was more profound after David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to challenge him. Brown has suffered worse batterings than this.
What is different, however, and worrying for Brown, is a new fearlessness among several of his cabinet critics, such as Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary. As I wrote in this column a fortnight ago, the Damian McBride affair has stripped Brown of personal authority among some of his own ministers. What has wounded him so badly is less the revelations about the proposed smear tactics to be used against leading Conservatives than the subsequent confirmation that the dark side of his internal operation extends to damaging his own colleagues.
True, many Labour MPs felt Brown was on the wrong side of the argument about Gurkha repatriation, allowing Nick Clegg and, to a lesser extent, David Cameron to expose him at Prime Minister's Questions. In the Commons chamber the following day, during the debate on MPs' expenses, Labour members were openly shaking their heads as the government put its case for abolishing the second homes allowance. By any yardstick, it has been a humiliating month for the government.
Yet there is little doubt that underpinning these events has been the slow-motion fallout from the exposure of Brown's ruthlessness: the worst-kept secret in Westminster. And the result, yet again, is more leadership speculation.
Against this backdrop, the weekend declaration by Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, that he can, after all, envisage circumstances in which he would stand for the Labour leadership, is significant ("I am not saying there would be no circumstances"). …