Tuesday, 9 June 2009

From the corridor of power.

Dispatch from the first floor committee corridor last night actually, where every Westminster lobby journalist I've ever known, and a few more besides, camped out, waiting for the improbable sound of an execution. It didn't happen that way though. Here's how it played out in the Herald.

As Gordon Brown entered committee room 14, the Gladstone Room, there was a great round of applause for the man who led his party into two of the most disastrous electoral results in the history of the Labour Party. It was clear then that the whips and the ministers were in control and the plotters had lived up to their name as a herd of assassins rather than a phalanx of killers.

There was no petition, no daggers hidden in the folds of the senators’ clothes, but a tense atmosphere as hundreds of Labour MPs and peers sandwiched themselves together to decide the fate of their leader.

Their mood was depressed and apprehensive as they filled the room until it was no longer possible to open the door inwards. Latecomers tried to press in but it was useless. They had to stand with hundreds of journalists in the corridor attempting to interpret the applause banging tabletops as endorsement for the leader or the revolution.

In a meeting that lasted 100 minutes and heard from over 30 speakers, Mr Brown prevailed over his critics, of whom just a handful spoke, with a mixture of humility, passion and rhetoric.

He began by admitting that he was not the perfect leader. "I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses," he told his colleagues. "There are some things I do well and some things not so well. I have learned that you have got to keep learning all the time."

He pledged to face up to his failings - promised to use the talents of everyone, act in a more collective way and be more open and transparent - but he stuck to the mantra that has seen him through this crisis: "You solve the problem not by walking away but by facing it and doing something about it," he said. He was going nowhere.

Mr Brown listed four priorities for the party - sorting the economy, getting the political system right, delivering a vision for the future and unity. He bound his audience together by draping the Tories as the real enemy while promising a raft of policy announcements later his week.

"I am not making a plea for unity I am making an argument for unity," said Mr Brown as he talked about the lessons of previous Labour governments that had been brought down by an economic crisis followed by disunity. There was no ideological divide in his party. "There is no massive difference over policy," he said. "There is not a resignation letter I have seen that mentions a policy difference"

Turning to the economic crisis Mr Brown said "these are challenges you cannot duck and you cannot run away from".

Then the floor was opened. In the first meeting since the two crushing electoral defeats a lot of strong words being exchanged but Mr Brown managed to assuage anger over the breakthrough by the BNP , expressed by Lyndsay Hoyle, a Lancashire MP.

It was a hard meeting for Gordon Brown, were harsh things were said but seemed to absorb and listen as he had promised. Speeches in support were drummed with applause. Those who spoke against, including Charles Clarke, were listened to in silence. Barry Sheerman served his idea of a secret ballot but the idea was not taken up. Fiona McTaggart, Tom Harris and Meg Munn, Siobhan McDonagh - all former junior ministers - found courage to call directly on Mr Brown to go. The Prime Minister answered his critics: "You can change the leader but all the challenges we face in the economy and in politics will still be there."

Labour’s elder statesman had been primed to speak in support - Gerald Kaufman, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett and Frank Dobson. Neil Kinnock made a passionate closing speech which as a huge personal endorsement for Mr Brown as a man of integrity.

On the other side of Westminster, in contrastingly modern setting, former Minister Stephen Byers chose to spit from a distance. "We need a leader who can lead and inspire at the next general election - Gordon Brown is not that leader," he told a rival audience. Ben Bradshaw, the new Culture Secretary, countered: "For those people here who want to change the leadership, you have got to have a candidate. Let’s get real about this, where is your effing candidate?"

As they filed out the marathon session veteran MPs said the party had peered over the edge and not liked what they had seen. "Division is the death knell for the any political party," said John McFall, Dunbartonshire West. "What’s at stake is the future of a Labour government, I think people realised that."

That was the reason why Glasgow South MP Tom Harris chose to speak out. He predicted Mr Brown would not lead Labour into the next election, so another botched autumn coup attempt looms. "My preference would be for Gordon to go voluntarily," said Mr Harris. "If Tony Blair had been Prime Minister when Labour polled 15% in a national election his position would have been untenable. For Gordon and his supporters to suggest that to win 15% and everything is fine is frankly baffling"

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