Thursday, 4 June 2009

Johnson can't change Labour. Only a spell in opposition will do that now.

Four ministerial resignations, including the Home Secretary, a back bench plot to unseat the Prime Minister from his leadership of the Labour party, rumours that an impending cabinet reshuffle will precipitate bitter recriminations rather than freshen and revitalise Gordon Brown’s team, predictions that the party could be beaten into fourth place in local and European elections, being held today. A new and strident challenger has emerged to contest the title of ‘worst week’ in the history of the disintegrating Labour government. There is a strong feeling that, for Brown at least, next week has the potential to be even worse.

Even loyal Brownites, who have found that they are not immune from their leader’s briefing operation, are reportedly starting to feel restive. There is speculation that Alistair Darling will refuse to be shuffled from the Treasury into another cabinet post, for instance.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the ‘big clunking fist’ which comprises Brown’s factional, oppositional politics is manifestly unsuited to the party leader’s role. Inevitably, having spent his years as Chancellor fomenting internecine conflict in government, the Prime Minister’s leadership has become a divisive issue. The habits which defined his years at the Treasury, recently given personal public expression in the cartoon villain figure of Damian McBride, were not consigned to the past when Brown became premier. Now that he requires, more than ever before, a party to unite behind his leadership, the suppressed grudges which his style has fostered are likely to surface.

David Cameron, if he is honest, would prefer Brown to remain at the helm of a crumbling government until the general election. The Prime Minister is, nevertheless, perhaps hubristic enough to cling to the wreckage, if he possibly can, and it remains to be seen whether any figure within the Labour party has the stomach to deliver a death blow to their leader. In addition there remains the suspicion that the next election is now irrecoverable for the government and Brown should be allowed to take a heavy defeat, rather than risking an immediate trouncing for any successor. As for the prospect of an immediate election, accompanying any short term change in leadership, Matthew Parris is persuasive in his argument that a large contingent of Labour MPs who expect to depart office after the poll will hardly be eager to hasten their departures.

Alan Johnson undoubtedly offers a less technocratic alternative to Brown, but it would be misguided to expect, should he take Labour’s reins, any distinct improvement in the government’s style. Parris again hits the mark when he describes Gordon Brown as a ‘symptom’ of the party’s travails rather than their root cause. Tony Blair, at the height of his popularity, was unable to carry through his programme of modernisation. Johnson would be enormously less well equipped to do so, holding on to the fag end of a dying administration.

He may not share the authoritarian, centralising instincts of the current Prime Minister, but his party is firmly in their grip and nothing short of a sustained spell in opposition can loosen the iron fingers.

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