Magazine article The Spectator

Labour Politicians Are Already Preparing for Opposition. the Race to Succeed Gordon Is On

Magazine article The Spectator

Labour Politicians Are Already Preparing for Opposition. the Race to Succeed Gordon Is On

Article excerpt

Over lunch about a year ago, I tried to tease out the intentions of someone tipped as a possible successor to Gordon Brown. He was feigning optimism and loyalty to the anointed leader-inwaiting, so I advanced some hypothetical scenarios involving various MPs being run over by buses. So would he maybe. . .

'Me? God, no, ' he replied, cutting me off. 'Forget it. As soon as this party gets into opposition then -- boof.' He mimed an explosion with his hands. 'Trust me. The queue to be Labour's William Hague will not be a long one.' Here were two striking assumptions: that Mr Brown was certain to lose, and that the Labour coalition would fast unravel. This, it must be said, is the minority view. Until quite recently, most Labour MPs believed they would defeat David Cameron -- but even now, those who grudgingly concede the possibility of defeat think that Labour's spell in opposition would be short-lived. The talk is of Mr Cameron being a 21st-century version of Edward Heath, and of Labour taking a 'short bath' -- a refreshing dip on the opposition benches followed by a return to business as usual and another decade or so of progressive governance.

Although it doesn't do to admit it, Mr Brown's departure in the reasonably foreseeable future has always been on the cards.

Soon after he entered No. 10, the Prime Minister's aides would say privately that he would fight just one election. Even he recognised he could not plausibly promise to lead Britain to the end of the next decade. If the Brown formula succeeded then Ed Balls, his protégé and author of his better ideas, would have a reasonable claim to succeed him.

'Look at the sheer pace of what Ed's doing, tearing up A-levels with minimal consultation, ' says one Cabinet minister. 'This has obviously been planned for years.' What was not planned was the fastest opinion poll collapse suffered by any prime minister since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich. The needle of probability in British politics -- which seldom points to any one outcome for more than a few weeks -- is currently veering towards a Labour defeat and a vacancy for leader of the opposition.

So the smarter Labour MPs are thinking through their options: the game plan is to keep a respectable but not indecent distance from the slow-motion car crash which is the Labour government. But what then?

Those who support the 'short bath for Labour' theory argue that Mr Cameron is just another Tory charlatan who will be exposed soon after entering office. The British are a fair-minded bunch of people, they reason, who, after a decade of Labour, may want to let the other chaps have a go.

But they expect Mr Cameron will win only by default in an election that is a referendum on Labour rather than an endorsement of the Tories, and be conspicuously unready for government. Prime Minister Cameron -- this line of reasoning continues -- would become overwhelmed by events and quickly exit stage right.

Even Labour MPs who credit the Tory leader with enough appeal to win the next election seem genuinely to expect him to be useless in government. To my mind, this recalls the fatal underestimation of Mr Cameron by the Brownites when he won the party leadership in 2005. But this is, for better or worse, the state of most Labour thinking.

One MP put it to me that if Neil Kinnock had triumphed in the 1992 election, the Tories would almost certainly have been back after a term because Labour was, at that point, ready to exploit the public's dissatisfaction with the Tories after 13 years of government, but still unready to govern. …

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