Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Harman episode

Usually when a politician denies something outright, it is read by the media as confirmation of the complete opposite of what they have just said.

So when Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, appeared on Newsnight on Thursday evening to deny strenuously that she was in any way positioning herself to replace Gordon Brown, the cynical among the press pack nodded that this was "confirmation" of exactly that manoeuvre.

Politics is like a soap opera except that all the players are trying to write the next scene before it happens. In this week's instalment, with MPs away from Westminster, the script had to be written by journalists.

On Monday, Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley passed on a story to readers that she had heard from "quite close to the inner core" of government. Germany's Angela Merkel was touting Gordon Brown for a role as the next leader of a beefed-up IMF.

It sounded daft, admitted Ms Ashley, but that did not stop her speculating about Mr Brown jumping into a lifeboat to make way for another leader.

Where did that come from, everyone in the village asked? Everyone knows there is no prospect of replacing Mr Brown before the next election.

But who was positioning themselves to be leader if Mr Brown loses his first General Election as leader?

The political blogs, increasingly powerful drumbeats in British politics, did not take long to finger Ms Harman as the cabinet minister most likely and the next day a series of newspaper hatchet jobs accused her of manoeuvring to make herself the heir-apparent.

Not only was she trying to entrance the left-wing of the party and the women's vote in one fell swoop by attacking the male culture of bank bonuses, she had also organised a rival G20 for female politicians in the hope of grabbing some of the international stardust for herself in April.

Mr Brown got tetchy when he had to dismiss all this "gossip" more than once when he unveiled his "global deal" for the economy at a press conference on Wednesday.

The counter-briefings then had Yvette Cooper, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, touted as the "stop Harriet" candidate. Ms Cooper is married to Ed Balls, Children's Minister, who was once, and maybe still is, the brains of Mr Brown.

Ms Harman then had to go on Newsnight to say there was not a "shred of truth" in reports she wanted the Prime Minister's job. By then it was getting ridiculous enough for Communities Minister Hazel Blears, to use the time-honoured speech to her constituency party to tell her colleagues to "get a grip".

Douglas Alexander, International Development Minister, gave the same message in his Paisley constituency last night, telling cabinet colleagues fishing for support before an election to pull their nets in. He said a fourth Labour term was "difficult but do-able" but it required unity.

In a shot at anyone in cabinet thinking beyond the Brown premiership, he added: "All of us should remember the words from our party's constitution: By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone'."

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