Magazine article The Spectator

'There Is Nothing Saying Labour Will Ever Win Power Again'

Magazine article The Spectator

'There Is Nothing Saying Labour Will Ever Win Power Again'

Article excerpt

The catalpa trees in New Palace Yard are in bloom, a glorious heatwave has struck London. Yet dark despair is curling through the core of the Labour party. From Cabinet level to the rank and file, there is a hardening awareness that for Gordon Brown to fight the next election would be to court disaster. Yet no one can say with confidence how the Prime Minister might be persuaded to leave. Between the two political realities lies an abyss, into which the Labour party may tumble headlong. Among an increasing number of ministers, the talk is no longer of defeat -- but outright electoral annihilation.

Parliament may be into the second week of recess, yet this has done nothing to restrain or slow the plotting. Jack Straw was first out of the traps, positioning himself as a stabilising force who might yet become something much more: he has, supposedly, been 'calming' ministers who have asked him to help remove the Prime Minister since the Glasgow East disaster. The none-too-subtle subtext, of course, is that it is he -- and not David Miliband -- to whom senior colleagues are looking for leadership.

The Foreign Secretary has quickly responded by laying out the beginnings of a personal manifesto in a Guardian article calling for 'radical change'. Thus -- whatever is said to the contrary -- the battle for the succession is already underway. Seconds out, round one.

Ministers are already on manoeuvres. Reports of Harriet Harman saying 'this is my time' as the Glasgow East result came in would be laughed off as innocent delusion, had she not unilaterally announced she is 'minding the shop' in Mr Brown's absence (which Number 10 denies).

Jon Cruddas has told left-wing Labour MPs he despises Whitehall and will not run for the leadership -- thus positioning himself adeptly as a union-friendly running mate for another candidate. James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary (and my initial outside bet for leader), has thrown in his lot with his fellow graduate of the Blair team, Mr Miliband. Yet no one is able to say quite how this race will start.

Historically, Labour has been extremely squeamish about forcing out its leaders. The party that suffered Michael Foot for three years and Neil Kinnock for nine has demonstrated its ability to keep proven vote-losers in post. 'We're a nice party, ' one senior minister tells me. 'We like unity, not bloody leadership battles. You can say that's our downfall, but that's how we are.' Another minister told me that, while the Tories like to gamble (wrongly in 2001 but rightly in 2005) Labour as a party craves the certainty of a five-year plan.

At present, therefore, it is stuck in a bleak limbo: as one Cabinet member puts it aptly, 'division without decision'. Mr Miliband delivers an Obama wink to the party, Mr Straw flexes his veteran's muscles. But the nightmare scenario for Labour is that no one will actually have the courage to take on Mr Brown and the gang of seasoned character-assassins who protect him.

The consequence, some senior figures fear, is that the defeat at the next general election will be one from which the party may not recover.

'My colleagues worry about going down like the Tories did in 1997, ' says one former Cabinet member. 'They should think more about the Liberal party [before the first world war]. There is nothing saying Labour will ever win power again.

We have no base in local authorities any more.

We cannot rely on the Celtic fringe. We have no money, other than what the unions choose to give us.' On this basis, Labour risks being supplanted by the Liberal Democrats, in the same way that Labour did the Liberal party. It is striking to hear this hypothesis sketched out not by gleeful Tories but doleful Labour politicians.

No less intriguingly, the figure who most alarms the senior Labour figures I have spoken to is Alex Salmond. 'Having an English Tory toff in Number 10 is the ideal scenario for Salmond's independence referendum, ' says another exCabinet member. …

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