Monday, 8 June 2009

Brown - but not out.

Wiped out this morning (a bit like the Labour Party) after chasing deadlines all night while covering the EU elections. Each time we went to press the picture changed but I think the BNP breakthrough made it into the paper.

All eyes on the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting tonight but without a leader the rebels are likely to be repelled. All eyes on Lord Mandelson too, the signal for the end, whenever that might be, will come with a nod from him it seems. Here's what I made of it for the Herald:

GORDON Brown was last night donning armour for the fight of his life against his own back benchers after Labour was left humiliated and shocked by the BNP breakthrough onto the European political stage.

Labour backbenchers preparing to use the European election results as a springboard for a second assassination attempt against the Prime Minister found themselves strengthened as MPs projected the government’s low-end, third place showing onto their own constituencies and calibrated their view of Mr Brown as an asset or liability accordingly.

Rather than wait for a result, Mr Brown tried to regain the initiative with a stage-managed appearance on television yesterday afternoon which he used to deliver a "when the going gets tough…" message to wavering Labour MPs that he has the drive and resilience to withstand an anticipated back bench attack today.

Mr Brown gave a fluid, relaxed and humorous performance in front of party activists in London, which sought to counter the impression after Friday’s reshuffle that he was an exhausted man under pressure.

The PM, always at his best among supporters, kept speculation about his future off the airwaves for an hour and a half with a speech and a question and answer session with party members in Newham. He told an invited Labour audience that the difficulties over the economy and MPs’ expenses had been "a test not just of our character, a test not just of the government, it is a test of our beliefs". He said: "What would people think of a Labour government, faced with an economic crisis that is worldwide, that is hitting families in this country, if we walked away from them at a time of need?"

It was unlikely that the speech, just hours before the election in which Labour had just 16% support, a record low, (15% as it turned out) would be enough to stop a back-bench revolt. However, having lashed his strongest potential opponents to the Cabinet mast, Mr Brown’s supporters feel the rebels do not have a credible candidate to march behind.

Talk of an organised, online plot against Mr Brown remained just that and significantly John Cruddas MP, a leading left winger, backed Mr Brown, and his old foes, Blairites Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers, withheld their backing for a revolt. Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, yesterday challenged the rebels to break cover and produce a list of names and a candidate. Without someone making a direct challenge to Mr Brown, it does not matter if the plotters get more than 72 signatories to a petition demanding he give up office.

His position is strengthened by the party rules that make it very difficult to shift a PM. Both sides know that, with the reshuffle complete and the 11 ministerial resignations dealt with, it is not enough for the rebels to put up a stalking-horse candidate or an old warrior such as Charles Clarke to trigger a challenge to the Prime Minister. Overnight the backbenchers hoped that the drubbing in the Euro poll would be enough of a scene change to allow cabinet members to drop their contorted declarations of loyalty to the leader.

Lord Falconer, Tony Blair’s old flatmate and Lord Chancellor in his Cabinet, said he did not believe the party could unite as long as Mr Brown remained at the helm. He was sure there were potential candidates waiting in the wings. Nick Raynsford, a former minister who has called openly for Mr Brown to stand down, and is still regarded as dangerous by Downing Street, said that the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party would be an "important moment".

Earlier, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson cast doubt on the ability of the plotters to find a credible candidate. "It would require somebody to stand against him, somebody who is raising their standard and saying that they could do a better job, and we don’t have that person," said Lord Mandelson, who batted away suggestions in leaked e-mails that he himself had written off Mr Brown as not being an election winner.

That rebel flag bearer will not be Alan Johnson, promoted to the post of Home Secretary, or David Miliband, who stopped the revolution on Thursday night by refusing to back the resignation of his friend James Purnell. Mr Johnson protested his loyalty again yesterday and urged MPs to get behind Gordon Brown, warning that "regicide" would not unite the party. He said no politician was "absolutely perfect" but Mr Brown was the "best man for the job". Mr Johnson emphasised that he was "not driven by personal ambition", but to be the next leader he must keep his hand clean during any assassination attempt.

Lord Mandelson, who has garnered the title of First Secretary of State for his role in steadying the Cabinet, was at Mr Brown’s side all day yesterday as it emerged just how important he had been in quelling the rebellion.

The young Turks in the Blairite wing of the party take their cue from Mandelson. By good fortune for the Prime Minister, he was in Downing Street when the news of Mr Purnell’s resignation broke and was able to contact David Miliband and Alan Johnson almost immediately with a message warning them not to move against Mr Brown. The subsequent "not now" signal sent by Miliband to his lieutenants meant, his supporters concluded, he had accepted Lord Mandelson’s advice that a summer coup would make the pressure for an autumn election irresistible.

The implication the Blairites take from that is that the Labour conference in September will be the killing ground and the new leader would have until next May to prove themselves. Whether that is indicative of an even deeper plot by the Prince of Darkness or a bluff to keep the Cabinet at bay is unfathomable.

Mr Brown faces an incredible fight for survival tonight but if he makes it through to Tuesday without a direct leadership challenge then he could survive for the rest of the parliamentary session. Unless Lord Mandelson – of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and Lord President of the Council – decides to switch off the life support.

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