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Could Clarke be the Assassin?

June 7th, 2009

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Might the ex-Home Secretary be Labour’s Stalking Elephant?

Today’s big news really ought to be the European Parliament election results this evening, though given the way the last few days have gone, there’s no guarantee that something even more dramatic won’t scoop it. Still, as they won’t come out until this evening, let’s have another look at the Labour leadership situation.

Once again, the Sunday newspapers are dreadful for Gordon Brown, with stories of (old) e-mails sent by Peter Mandelson describing, perhaps all too accurately, why Brown was unsuited to being PM. Brown’s behaviour in the last week has done little to counter Mandelson’s assessment.

Still, for all the speculation about the Labour leadership, the rumours of letters and e-mails circulating around the PLP, the resignations of cabinet ministers and less than convincing reshuffle, and the losses in the elections, not all the necessary conditions for a leadership challenge are yet in place.

I wrote in a thread a few weeks ago that four conditions are necessary if any leadership challenge is to be successful (though even they do not guarantee success):

  • A general political climate in which the party leader is considered to be badly underperforming.
  • A candidate who can take the fight to the leader.
  • A spark to focus the challenge.
  • A mechanism through which the challenge can be made
  • At the moment, about two and a half conditions are satisfied: there is the mood for a challenge and the elections and resignations provide the crisis necessary to spark a challenge. There might be a mechanism in place, if the PLP were to prove unmanageably mutinous on Monday, though it’s not the clean-cut mechanism of a direct election. What’s missing is a candidate. All the potential replacements have just accepted office under Brown in the reshuffle: they are in the tent.

    It’s true that some in the cabinet might do a better job than Brown but while they’re backing him there can’t be a challenge in their name.

    That lack of a challenger also provides a problem for those circulating the e-mail round MP’s. Although correspondence signed by more than 70 MP’s demanding Brown stand down or expressing no confidence in him would be a devastating blow, according to the Labour Rule Book, it would have no bearing. Only the direct nomination of an alternative candidate can do that – and if Brown refuses to stand down, and no plausible alternative PM is prepared to challenge, that requires someone to go on a kamikaze mission against him.

    Such a nomination could only be to clear the way for the likes of Harman, Johnson or Miliband to run. He or she would surely have to announce in advance their intention not to accept office if elected so as to give Labour the best chance to find their best leader available.

    Who might do it? The sort of person needed would have to have a thick skin, accept that their political career is essentially over (no new PM could appoint them to office as it would look like a plot which they were in on), have expressed serious concerns about Brown in the past and have the bullheaded courage to make the charge. To my mind, the sort of person like Charles Clarke.

    It may not be necessary. Brown may go anyway, though he shows little inclination to do so as yet. Further resignations may force his hand, though it would surely be difficult for any minister to resign so soon after a reshuffle. The PLP may break into mass open revolt, rendering the whips’ job impossible. Maybe, but I doubt it.

    To that end, I put a small bet on Clarke to be Next PM at 79/1 over the weekend, mainly as a trading bet (I also backed Harman at 15/1 and topped up on Cameron at up to evens).

    As so often with politics, the question is not just ‘Who?’ but ‘How?’.

    David Herdson