Magazine article The Spectator

I Won't Make Life Easy for Gordon by Defecting

Magazine article The Spectator

I Won't Make Life Easy for Gordon by Defecting

Article excerpt

Frank Field has been up to mischief. Since leaving government in 1998, he has not been a fan of Gordon Brown, but last week he declared all-out political war against the Chancellor. In an article for the Guardian he outlined exactly why Mr Brown should not become party leader, arguing that he is too associated with past failings to offer hope for the future. He concluded his attack with four words which caused even more havoc, 'Step forward, David Miliband.' If Mr Field were an ordinary maverick Labour backbencher, no one would much care what he thought. But he has been proved right too often in the past to be written off as a crank. Bookmakers have duly made the Environment Secretary the one most likely to challenge Mr Brown, which in Westminster is the equivalent of passing someone a black spot. All previous challengers now lie mangled. So what, I ask, does Mr Field have against poor Mr Miliband? Does he want him assassinated?

'Do you mean David is not pleased with me?' he asks, smiling. Well, I say, he describes suggestions that he should stand as 'ridiculous' and seems to find the spotlight mildly terrifying. 'Well, this is a test for him, ' says Mr Field. 'I just thought it would be useful to say we could skip a generation, I mean, we also have John Reid. And Charles Clarke has been making speeches recently.

But whatever happens, I think it is crucial that we have a Cabinet-level contest.' Mr Field's aim is to alert Labour to what he sees is a calamitous mistake: entrapping itself in the Blair-Brown era. A leadership race would bring the party to its senses, by seeing what a dire candidate he is. 'Gordon is not good at responding quickly, ' he says.

'He has his annual budget, gets geared up for it and the machine delivers Gordon's message. But he has never been tested to act by the second. In a leadership contest, people will see him and think, "Gosh, I didn't realise Gordon was so slow in responding in this way." ' His beef with Mr Brown cuts straight to the heart of what he believes Labour should be about, and the ways in which it helps the most vulnerable. He believes Mr Brown looks on the underclass and sees a financial problem which can be solved if people's income surpasses certain thresholds. Mr Field sees a behavioural problem: broken families, collapse of discipline and what he calls 'new barbarianism' among the poor. It is a new mutation of poverty, which cannot be fought by old methods.

He attributes his own conversion to a visit from a group of pensioners in his Birkenhead constituency ten years ago. 'They told me how life had changed for them. Kids were running across the bungalow roofs, peeing through their letterboxes and jumping out at them in the dark, ' he says. 'I realised then that Britain was changing for the worse and so was my job as an MP. I'd been trained in the politics of class, and while not unimportant, this was now secondary to what my constituents were demanding.' He wanted the new Labour government to address this issue head-on, and for a while was encouraged by Tony Blair, who made him welfare reform minister with a brief to 'think the unthinkable'. But his ideas met a cold reception. 'I could never get the Prime Minister interested, so I'd say something to make him jump, ' he says. 'I once said, "Can we have built in Birkenhead indestructible units under our flyover, and put neighbours from hell there? …

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