From the Herald
IT WAS not a funeral wake, that will come later, more like a large family gathering in the corridor of an old city hospital. The expressions of the Labour cabinet lined up on the front benches for Prime Minister’s Questions showed they were waiting for the worst but hoping for the best.
These are the people who will decide the fate of the Prime Minister over the next few days after two elections, to Brussels and County Councils across England, deliver a public verdict on him too. John Denham was looking skyward; Yvette Cooper scowling furiously; Hilary Benn grim-faced; Andy Burnham, grimmer still behind new spectacles. Alan Johnson, the man most likely, looked puffy eyed and distant. David Miliband was smiling, strangely, and at the other end of the bench Jack Straw and Nick Brown sat whispering to each other.
Thankfully, none of us know our fate but some of them had no inkling whether they would be in the cabinet in a week, (or a day it seemed at one stage), from now. The big question is who will be their leader, and who among them has the courage to strike?It is being called a "handbag coup", to be led, say the conspirators, by the female members of the government. Sure enough Caroline Flint, the Europe Minister, sat as far away as was possible, on the short back benches, one behind Charles Clarke - which might be symbolic or just the outcome of the rush for seats in the chamber as MPs crammed in for the highlight of the political week.
Hazel Blears wasn’t there of course, having shot an arrow at the leader’s heart just a few hours earlier. Just when most people at Westminster thought they might get through a morning without a cabinet resignation Ms Blears left the government and Mr Brown dangling. Such a high profile act, on the eve on an election and just 90 minutes before Question Time could have been nothing less than attempt to wound and destabilise the Prime Minister.
A ragged cheer went up for Mr Brown as he entered the chamber. Two priests were on hand, above in the public gallery, in case the last rites were necessary but it was clear that whatever anyone else’s plans for him the Kirkcaldy boy will fight tenaciously. The event itself, as is often the case when politics pitches and rolls on a sea of high drama, proved to be less of a show than was billed.
Mike Weir - and when will an SNP MP have a better chance until next Wednesday to decapitate the government - opened by asking Mr Brown to go in the softest of tones. David Cameron failed to rise to the task too. Perhaps he thought he would only need deliver the coup de grace but Mr Brown is made of sterner stuff. Mr Cameron declared "the government is collapsing before our eyes" and few could disagree - except Mr Brown. Mr Cameron goaded the leader of "a dysfunctional Cabinet, a dysfunctional Government, led by a Prime Minister who can’t give a lead" and called, as he has done before, for a General Election." It is words, words, and words. We will get on with the action," said an angry Mr Brown, who has some fight in him even if the Labour party does not.
Cameron reverted to the instinct of an Eton bully - going for the weakest and attempted to drag the corpse of Alistair Darling across the floor. Mr Darling and John Hutton sat cross legged on the packed benches trying hard to look like two contented marmots snug in their burrow as Mr Cameron tried to dislodge the chancellor. That could prove a hard task, even for his boss, who made sure he used the correct tense - "is" - when praising the Chancellor. But twice Mr Brown refused to answer the challenge and say whether Mr Darling would be in his job in a week’s time. Who really knows - Mr Darling was reported to have made it known that he will not take the office of Home Secretary.
Nick Clegg took on the bedside manner of a straight talking doctor telling the patient he would never walk again. "He just doesn’t get it. His government is paralysed by indecision, crippled by infighting, exhausted after 12 long years," said Dr Kildare. Unfortunately he had sampled his own propaganda too much, proclaiming: "Labour is finished. The only choice now is between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats."It was the only thing that made Labour MPs laugh after a morning of political sabotage.
After cornering Mr Brown in his den in Downing Street the previous evening Ms Blears delivered her resignation to him at another meeting in his study at 9.45am. She was furious with the way her expenses claims had been branded "unacceptable" by the Prime Minister while the misdemeanours of male members of the cabinet had been glossed over. Having been left hanging, despite paying her capital gains tax with the flourish of a £13,000 cheque on television news, Ms Blears was determined not to become the cabinet scapegoat for the expenses scandal. Before she could be pushed this weekend she jumped, hoping to bring the scaffold down with her. It has to be said she did so with some style, sporting a brooch of a ship inscribed with the words "rocking the boat".
Her move aimed to destabilise the Prime Minister but Ms Blears seemed to have forgotten the tribalism that runs through her own veins. In the corridors government whips accused her of "treachery" against the Labour Party a day before the European and English County Council elections. A quick "smear operation" revived allegations about her capital gains tax repayments but her self-serving resignation never mentioned him and the damage was all one way. In his letter to the Communities Secretary, Mr Brown said he hoped it would not be long before she could return to government. It was remarkably gracious move by Mr Brown who maybe did not want to get into a fight with the assassin. She could still play a part next week by rising from the back benches to denounce the government Mr Brown should have sacked her from weeks ago.
No doubt the resignation of the local government minister on the eve of the local government elections will be blamed for the collapse of the Labour vote just as she was being fingered for leaking the news of Jacqui Smith’s departure as Home Secretary the day before.
Ms Smith, whose resignation was blethered out on Tuesday but bizarrely remains in office, did her best to shore up Mr Brown on television and squeezed onto the front bench at Question Time looking as if she was close to getting emotional. There will be no let up for the Prime Minister in the days to come.
The Guardian moved against him yesterday - "a small circulation Hampstead newspaper" scoffed a government loyalist who conceded that if it had been the Daily Mirror then the earth would have trembled. But the Labour tabloid shares the tribal instinct of the Labour MPs and regard betrayal of the party a crime on the a par with the taboo of regicide.
Other Prime Ministers have survived worse, for a time, and the pressure cooker effect of the rolling news coverage left commentators commenting on vapour trails as the day wore on. Lord Mandelson, who can look at a sheet of black paper and convince you that it is actually a photo of white paper taken without a flash at night, was sent into the coliseum to sooth the media beast.
That other piece of paper, an e-petition of Labour backbenchers calling on the Prime Minister to leave office, broke cover in the late evening but not everyone wanted to be party to it. "I don’t want to be the 24th name on a list that might only reach 27," said one backbencher displaying the characteristic lack of guts that has allowed Mr Brown to survive for so long. The cabinet look to the backbenches, the MPs want an Alan Johnson putsch but no one will move first.
An attempt to remove the Prime Minister needs seventy signatures attached to a named candidate and there doesn’t appear to be one person that can pull in that kind of support without appearing to be settling a score. Senior colleagues could go to Downing Street and tell him he ought to go, or there could be a Geoffery Howe style resignation speech from a Blears figure or Alistair Darling, who is Chancellor or he is nothing, after a reshuffle.
No other Minister resigned in the afternoon although in the febrile atmosphere a reshuffle rumour swept around Westminster with names like John Reid being mentioned. By then Ms Blears was on the train to Salford, from whence she came, Labour rebels were still not properly organised and Mr Brown was in Downing Street, a Prime Minister summoning his brute political strength for a fight to the death.