Sunday 31 January 2010

Blair at Chilcot- "he believed every word he uttered"

Quickfire for The Record 30/01/10

Tanned, toned and talking the talk – Tony Blair showed he had lost none of his gifts of showmanship when he took the stand in front of the Chilcot inquiry.

If he appeared slightly nervous at first it did not take long for Teflon Tony to get into his stride. The tension in the room eased as his familiar voice began an apparently reasoned explanation of why Britain waged a war that cost the lives of 179 British service personnel, thousands of civilians casualties and fermented terrorism across the Middle East.

Mr Blair had arrived in secret two hours before the inquiry began. Security meant his life was not in danger but his reputation and his legacy were certainly at risk when he faced the public inquisition.

Anti-war protesters, who will haunt Tony Blair to the grave, formed a choir outside with Westminster Abbey in the background. This is how gladiator day at the Colosieum in ancient Rome must have looked with tents and scaffolds to shelter media crews and yellow jacketed centurions guarding the entrance to the arena.

An queue of the ordinary British public forming an orderly snaking shape to get through security brought the scene back to the 21st century. They sat on the lottery allocated seats in the inquiry room or the overflow hall where we were all glued to TV monitors.

But if this was to be Tony Blair's judgement day the lions turned out to be toothless. He quickly turned his dock into another swansong on the centre stage.

Fluent, polite but determined not to give any ground Mr Blair gently talked the inquiry and the world through his reasons for going to war. He, and only he it seemed, had seen the world shift on its axis after 9/11. It was only a matter of time before rogue nations like Iraq and terror organisations started swapping WMDs with apocalyptic consequences for us all.

Deeper tanned and with greyer hair he did not deviate an inch from the line that Saddam had to be taken out by any means necessary. These were not his actual words, he spoke of disarmament, compliance and military options. But he exhibited the same steely determination that took him through the million strong anti-war protests, the anger of bereaved parents, as he said there were no lies and no regrets.

He slipped up over his slip up with Fern Brittan. It was a clumsy U-turn to a 'when did you stop beating your wife' kind of question. But for the most part he was fluent. With the personal stakes so high in that political cauldron of he pulled it off. The panel had no real armour to match his version of history.

When he asks us to imagine 2010 with Saddam still in power he was also warning the world that it faces the same decisions all over again with Iran. Basically he and George Bush had the “cojones” to take out Saddam and the next generation of leaders had to show the same courage with Tehran.

It was defiant stuff. No mistakes, no apology no regret. He knew what he was doing. It was a first class, lawyerly defence laced with the political vision he has always been able to communicate.

He believed the invasion was right, he believed that the cabinet had been given their say, he believed that ultimately he had done the right thing.

He believed every single word as he uttered them. That was always Tony Blair's exceptional political gift.

Friday 29 January 2010

Chilcot coming back - will Blair slip up?

Rows and rows of pubic queuing quietly in the damp to get afternoon seats for the Chilcot inquiry as I come back into the Queen Elizabeth hall. Some family of the fallen soldiers amongst them.

Chilcot and Freedman (the historian who advised on Blair's Chicago 99 speech that was referenced in the morning)came through the crowd like a couple of gents on the way back from a lunchtime pint.

Blair appears to have conducted himself with some calm authority during the morning session. He turns each question to what he wants to talk about with the old "if I could just say" and "it's important to understand..."

Unless he makes some huge display of contrition or there is some disruption this afternoon he is on course for a command performance of I did it my way.

His message is certainly not contrite. When he asks us to imagine 2010 with Saddam still in power - with WMD capacity, with oil at $100 a barrel, and the international community losing its nerve - he is basically asking us to be thankful that he took the hard road to war in 2003.

He's also warning the world that it faces the same decisions all over again with Iran. Time and time again he has warned that Iran is involved in destabilisation in the middle east, has links with fundamental Islamists, and is going flat out to acquire nuclear weapons.

He batted away most of the serious questions on the 45 minute warning, the intelligence briefings and the opposition within cabinet. He insisted there was no deal signed in blood with Bush but that he said publicly and privately that he would go to war if sanctions and the UN route failed. Some will call that unrepentant Blair. Some in the Labour party will look at the way he's handling this pressure cooker and wonder why they ever got rid of him.

He does though face difficult questions on the legality of the war, I'd say, and needs more cross-examination of this issue of removal rather than disarmament.

Ach, I've just been offered a seat in the inquiry chamber but I'm going to have to write and listen all afternoon.

Blair at the Iraq Inquiry - no early blows landed

Round One to Blair is the concensus in the media hall. My source in the actual chamber says that at the beginning proceedings were tense but that the atmosphere eased as Blair got into his stride and began articulating his case.

His argument, his defence if you like, is that he publicly and privately backed regime change but on the basis that Saddam's WMDs posed a huge threat to the west.

He has effectively denied the accusation made by Sir Christopher Mayer that there was a secret deal "signed in blood" at the crucial Crawford Ranch meeting in 2002.

Blair argued in public and in private that the UK would back military action if that was necessary. He refered to several speeches and press conferences in which he said that on terms. In other words no secret deal.

For Blair the world changed with 9/11, the "calculus of risk" changed. The combination of rogue states, WMDs and Islamist terrorism meant that tryrants like Saddam had to be faced down, and if necessary taken down, or the west would face nuclear-armed terrorists in a short time.

He slipped up once, when dealing with the Fern Britton interview. He resorted to verbage and admitted that he made a misake when he said last year that he would have wanted to get rid of Saddam even if he had know Iraq had no WMD

He's back in the hall mow, tanned and talking. Let's tune in...

Live from the Coliseum - Blair due shortly

Whitehall 1212 is back and live at the Coliseum, or the Queen Elisabeth Conference as it is known. which is the stage for the most epic piece of political drama of the year.

I've been away for a while. I've changed jobs to the Daily Record and trying to slot into a new newspaper's technology and has left me baffled. I will be blogging regularly on the Record site just as soon as I figure out how to.( This will come just after I learn to write again and file on time.)

Anyway, back to the circus. Tony Blair has already arrived at the venue, the vast conference hall across the road from Westminster Abbey. There are scores of tv crews, sat dishes, presentation scaffolds and lights on the muddied lawn outside. Protesters, who seem to number fewer that the media, are corralled to one side of the hall at a good distance behind crowd barriers.

Some people are in the inquiry hall but most of the reporting you will be getting will come from here in the media hall, next door, where we are all lined up in front of giant screens like students waiting to take our exams.

Oh, we're on. He's here. More later.

Thursday 14 January 2010

If Robbie Burns played football...

Philosophy Football, suppliers of t-shirts to the political classes, has brought out a Robbie Burns shirt to coincide with the Bard's 251st birthday.

Selected for the Philosophy Football T-shirt squad just in time for Burns night is Robbie's poetic tribute to the benefits of fair play.

You can see the navy shirt on their website with the immortal script:

"The honest heart that's free frae a' intended fraud or guile. However fortune kick the ba', Has ay some cause to smile."

There's Burns 25 on the back which would make it a good shirt for Malcolm Burns, of Sy and Glasgow, or Jimmy Burns, recently of the FT, or anyone for that matter who wants to combine poetry, politics and punting a ball up the field.

Available from

Wednesday 13 January 2010

The Russians are coming, Bulgarians too

There was a competition in Room 2 this morning for the most extravagant fur hat of the season. David Perry of the Press and Journal thought his Russian beaver skin* was a clear winner but Gerri Peev's Polar Bear* fur meant the Scotsman squeaked through as the winner.

(*No real animals were hurt in the making of this blog. All the fur is artificial)

Scottish Questions and carrier jobs alert

A trudge in through the snow for my last but one day on the Herald. And it's going to be quite a busy one.

Lord Turnbull is at the Iraq inquiry, there's Scottish Questions followed by Prime Minister's Questions, the first since the failed coup which seems like more than a weeek ago.

With only a pause for a cheese sandwitch that is followed by the Scottish Affairs Committee grilling City Minister Lord Myners on banking and Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy on Calman proposals.

Also Richard Norton-Taylor is throwing fresh doubts on the two huge aircraft carrier projects that are so important for Scottish defence jobs on the Clyde and Rosyth.

Norton-Taylor of the Guardian reckons the MoD will slash the order for Joint Strike Fighters from 140 to 70, bad news for Lossiemouth I would imagine. There would be a knock on for the two carriers - the Queen Elisabeth and the Prince of Wales - in that there would be less aircraft to fly off them. So at a cost of £4bn a piece why build two.

Labour would find this a difficult decision to make even under the most stringent strategic defence review but the Tories would lose no votes by cutting ship building jobs. A suitable topic for Scottish Questions which is in a little over an hour.

One piece of good news, my colleague Mike Settle has just walked in the door off his delayed Surbiton train. "What was it this time Mike, snow on the line?"

Campbell's soup spoiled by personal letters

Alisdair Campbell was told to "get serious" when, at the opening of his evidence to the Chilcott inquiry, he said he wouldn’t jump off a tall building if asked by Tony Blair.

But he was being serious as it soon became apparent that Blair’s former press secretary, still the spinner, still the praetorian guard, would do anything short of that for his old boss.

By the end of an impressive five hours of evidence Campbell had built a sizable scaffold on which Tony Blair can drape his justification for British involvement in invading Iraq in 2003.

Contrary to what the inquiry had heard from other witnesses, Campbell argued Blair never committed to the removal of Saddam Hussein until the last minute. Throughout Blair pursued twin track of diplomacy through the UN backed by the threat of military action, right up until the Commons debate on war in March 2003.

The Chilcott inquiry worthies simply didn’t have the firepower to contradict him. They recalled Sir Christopher Meyer’s words, who claimed a deal had been "signed in blood" between George W Bush and Tony Blair for regime change in 2002. But Campbell - combining the robust charm, defiance and unshakable self-belief that lobby journalists recognised from days of old - dismissed the former Washington ambassador as "churlish".

Only Sir Roderic Lyne broke the narrative web of Blair’s attachment to diplomacy. He flummoxed Campbell by referring to personal letters Tony Blair had penned to George Bush as early as 2002. Campbell confirmed they were "frank and advisory" when Sir Roderic suggested the letters showed Blair had committed Britain to go to war with Bush if the UN route was exhausted.

"The PM wrote a lot of notes and the tenor of them was: we share the analysis, we share the concern, we are going to be with you in making sure that Saddam Hussein is faced up to his obligations and that Iraq is disarmed. If that cannot be done diplomatically and it is to be done militarily, Britain will be there."

When it came to other documents Campbell dismissed suggestions he "sexed up" the dossier on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction and blamed the controversy surrounding it on "an utterly dishonest piece of journalism" by the BBC which spiralled into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly. "I defend every single word of the dossier every single word of the process," he declared. The second "dodgy dossier" published in February 2003, the one plagiarised off the internet, was a "mistake" he admitted.

Sir Rod was the one panel member who punctured Campbell’s disciplined strategy. He asked why Mr Blair referred to Iraq’s WMD programme as "active, detailed and growing" in Parliament in September 2002. Previously, the threat was described as "current, serious and credible". The idea of "growing" doesn’t appear in the thousands of pages of intelligence reports, said Sir Rod. Campbell blustered a response as the inquiry came close to suggesting Blair exaggerated the case for war and misled the Commons.

Yesterday was only the warm-up for these bigger questions but Campbell provided a glimpse behind the curtain and expressed pride in Blair’s lonely decision to go to war. "I saw the Prime Minister as often as anybody else and I saw someone of deep conviction and integrity who was without doubt making the most difficult decision of his premiership, knowing there were going to be consequences," he said.

"People knew from within their own households how divisive this issue was but let’s get rid of the conspiracy theories that this was about oil or George Bush telling Tony Blair what to do. Somebody who has been elected Prime Minister, who wants to get re-elected, does not make a decision like this unless he really believes in it." Ultimately Blair thought there would be a "day of reckoning" if Iraq was not confronted.

Finally he suggested that government needed a communications strategy for the Afghan war. Campbell’s coda to his spirited performance: more war, more spin.

Monday 11 January 2010

Galloway's Battle of the Nile re-enacted

George Galloway's epic account of his expulsion from Egypt, accompanied as always by his Boswell and my old friend Ron McKay, makes for entertaining reading this morning.

I don't mean to undermine the nastiness of the situation he faced but Galloway's melodramatic description of being bundled into an unmarked van by Egyptian security goons is fantastic. In a single sentence (which couldn't have been written by Ron) he captures the spirit of man who is a politician to his core. "I knew we weren't going to be killed as we were able to make the necessary calls - well at least a call to the Press Association."

Friday 8 January 2010

Elvis lives (though not in Tory HQ)

Live pictures from the Labour kitten plot

Ok, it's Friday afternoon so we can indulge ourselves a little bit with the dozens of kitten conspiracy pictures that are out there. That's my excuse anyway. What these guys over at Liberal Conspiracy have been doing with their time all week I don't know.

Iceland, Ireland and points in between.

Not that old joke but if you want to follow the news on the constitutional crisis in Iceland and the political crisis in Northern Ireland I recommend two top blogs.

Slugger O'Toole has been running a politics blog the way politics blogs ought to be run for quite a few years covering events north and south of the border.

The Iceland Weather Report sometimes does what it says on the tin and gives you the windspeed in Iceland. More often this cool site comments on the political temperature and, I suspect, unsettles anything that might look like a cosy, let's sweep this under the carpet too, concencus that afflicts communities where everyone knows your name.

And speaking of bold journalism did you read Nick Cohen over Christmas on Gerry Adams and the IRA? Strong stuff. That's enough click throughs to other people's sites for one day.

Court news and traffic violations

As if Steve Hilton, the Tory's top spin doctor, wasn't embarrassed enough to have news of his rail barrier rage arrest in, er, October 2008 reported in the prints today he also woke up to find he'd been caught in a classic Daily Mirror "berk on a bike" sting.

The Mirror followed Hilton, lampooned as the balding, bearded, gobblydeegook, Tory spinner in "The Thick of it", through eleven red lights this week as he cycled to work. They've done this before to other "cyclopaths" like Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

My immediate reaction (apart from they'll have to do better than that) is hats off to Hilton for cycling through London this week. It is baltic out there and when you get to Westminster the place is as draughty as Hamlet's Elsinore.

In other court news Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman has been fined £350 and had three points put on her licence for careless driving following a minor scrape in Dulwich last summer. Remember the Mail on Sunday turned it into a "you know who I am" Haradan incident that had the local MP leaving the scene, driving while using her mobile phone and facing a firing squad in the morning. All these charges were dropped.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Frozen Britain knocks coup into teacup

This stunning satellite image of white Britain will be exclusive to every front page tomorrow morning. Everything else is just "a storm in a tea cup".

In England it will not be extremely cold tonight as there will be a breeze. But in Scotland it could be the coldest night of the winter for Britain, with temperatures as low as the minus 20s in the Highlands.

Gas supplies are low, salt wars are breaking out between councils and politicians and the snow is here to stay. I say sell sand, buy Harris Tweed.

It's a Record transfer deal

The news is out anyway so I may as well confirm my move to be the Daily Record's Westminster Editor at the end of this month, ending a long association with the Herald.

I first joined the Herald in the early 90s then returned to print after a spell as a tv director to the Sunday Herald in 1999.

When I moved back to the Herald in April 2008 my first phonecall to the Glasgow newsdesk was answered by Allan Laing, who shepherded me through my first day on the paper in August 1992. "Allan, as I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted 16 years ago..."

The Herald was very good to me and long-suffering Glasgow subs used to my 400 word intro sentences will understand when I describe the Record as a good challenge. The job starts with the general election campaign of a generation and it will take me beyond that with a big Scottish readership. I'm looking forward to it.

As the job title implies I'll remain at Westminster, just moving to another office, and I hope I'll be able to keep Whitehall 1212 going as it is, a personal website that logs my journalism, shaggy dog stories and whatever else I'm interested in.

From Snow plot to slush in five hours

For today's Herald

I was going to write about how much suede protector Teresa May’s red boots needed and that other big story, slush on London pavements, after a nice lunch. But - hold page 6 - a coup plot was launched against Gordon Brown. The third one was due - and what a half-cocked, unorganised, rubber knife assassination attempt it was. But still, it messed up lunch.

News spread by twitter and text halfway through Prime Minister’s Questions while Gordon Brown was giving a gutsy good performance. Blackberrys being passed around the Conservative benches and the swift exit of the Prime Minister’s spokesman from the press gallery alerted us that the balloon had gone up.

Central lobby, where we bump into MPs, was virtually empty when we got down there and the odd Labour rebel left didn’t think this latest (too late?) attempt would amount to more than a pile of slush.

Rumours about cabinet resignations started the moment the Commons returned on Tuesday. Apparently Brown knew something was afoot just before mid-day when he stood up and gave a super-charged performance at the dispatch box.

Everyone ran around with mobiles strapped to their ears pretending they knew something. "We’re not calling on Gordon to go," insisted Patricia Hewitt on radio at lunchtime (Did someone mention lunch?) "This is not an attempted coup, this is an attempt to get this sorted once and for all."

Our slush expert predicted that none of the cabinet had the courage to walk out and that the day would end with Brown’s position strengthened.

What a gift for the opposition. Brown strengthened is exactly what the Tories want as every opinion poll tells them Labour can’t win with Brown as leader.
By 3pm the Polar Plot had frozen. A few "usual suspect" cabinet loyalists had spoken for Brown - Shawn Woodward and Ed Balls to the barricades.

Woodward had a point - with 120 days to a general election the country will be simply astonished at the behaviour of the plotters.

Brown’s convoy left the Commons just two hours and fifteen minutes after the plot unfolded. Bet he was glad he didn’t start his tour of the south of England yesterday after all.

Rumours swirled in the snow. Jack Straw was to lead the rebuttal operation and Peter Mandelson was due on Newsnight. But by 4pm, with darkness falling, no big beasts had come to Brown’s defence. Like previous botched attempts courage was the only ingredient missing from the atmosphere in Westminster. Did senior members of the cabinet - let’s name them: Mandelson, Straw, Miliband, Darling - have neither the guts to either stop this or to dip their hands in blood.

In the hiatus, while ministers watched and waited, suspicion grew that the cabinet was wobbling. What took them so long to endorse Mr Brown? Darling issued a statement saying that he wasn’t to be "distracted" from economic recovery. Hardly an endorsement and Labour backbenchers shook their heads as time drifted on.

The loyalty dripped in an hour before teatime. Harriet Harman issued her statement last a "friend" of David Miliband has said this is not going anywhere. It was all over at 6.18pm. The Snow Plot was a slushy coup.

How different today’s headlines could have been. Brown brilliant at Question Time, a narrowing gap in the polls, Teresa May’s suede protector bill. Instead it was coup and flop with Mandelson putting all children to bed with a nice story. Is Gordon Brown the unluckiest politician of his generation? You bet.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

The Laird of Drambeg's Highland Coup

Sometimes at the end of a long day the old ones are the best - especially when they come from the pen of the late Ewen Bain, and the lips of Angus Og. This one for Nick Robinson, who has had a hard time today from the bloggers, and will get an even harder time from six cabinet ministers a leaping when they catch up with him tomorrow.

Murphy responds to coup plot claim

This is Secretary of State Jim Murphy's 10.20pm response to the claim that he was one of six cabinet members Hewitt and Hoon believed would back a bid to unseat Gordon Brown as leader

“This is a distraction from the important work of protecting jobs and working towards the economic recovery. This is particularly important in Scotland where the SNP government are just not doing enough.”

I'm sitting here waiting for the SNP to lovebomb the inbox of Scottish journalists with their own reaction.

Plotters throw snowballs at cabinet

Tailspinning out of a dramatic day comes this at 10pm:

Last night, as the opposition played up the divisions in Labour, Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, the International Development Minister, were claimed to be among six cabinet members that the coup plotters believed would be sympathetic to their cause.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson, a man hotwired to Westminster, said the plotters - by which he meant Hoon and Hewitt had named six cabinet members they believed would be ready to back a bid to get rid of Brown.

The other cabinet members named by the BBC as potential supporters of a coup were Harriet Harman, David Miliband, Bob Ainsworth, and Jack Straw, who led the eventual rebuttal of the rebellion yesterday afternoon

“It is frankly ludicrous to say this,” said a spokesman for the Scottish Secretary last night. “Mr Murphy said at 2pm that this was a distraction."

Earlier Mr Murphy emphasised that the party should focus on economic recovery and not a leadership ballot and that they should fight the Tories not each other. (An seo air blog Niall)

The six are an unlikely, cross-factional combination but, like an Agatha Christie novel, each would be armed with a motive to get even with their boss. The reasons are too byzantine to get into and don't really add to much credibility to the claims.

More interesting perhaps are Eric Joyce's reflections on the day. Let's see if Lord Mandelson has made it through the snow to the Newsnight studio?

Plot melting away

I've gone through a list of all the cabinet members and Harriet Harman and David Miliband, the two most likely to take over from Gordon Brown, have still to add their names in support.

There was a hiatus this afternoon, while people were watching and waiting, when the big beasts could have moved. That it took them so long to endorse Mr Brown indicates that there was a wobble inside the cabinet.

Oh - Harman has just issued a statement of support and a "friend" of David Miliband has said this is not going anywhere. It's all over then at 6.18pm. The Snow Plot has been a slushy coup.

How different it could all have been in tomorrow's headlines. As Kevin Mcguire points out over at the Mirror - Brown brilliant at Question Time, a Sun poll (the Sun mark you) showing the gap narrowing and the Spectator cover (the Spectator mark you) mocking Cameron for having no policies of his own. Instead it's coup and counter-plot with Mandelson still to put all the children to bed on Newsnight later.

Is Gordon Brown the unluckiest politician of his generation? You bet.

4pm and still on a knife edge

After 4pm and darkness is falling across London, but the Ice Coup is not over yet. Shaun Woodward and Ed Balls have been out in support of the Prime Minister but these are officers that would go down with the ship rather than see Gordon Brown replaced.

Other Ministers have not been out to back up Mr Brown and that gives rise to the suspision that they are still deciding how to react.

Courage is the only thing that is missing from the atmosphere in Westminster this afternoon. Senior members of the cabinet - let's name them: Mandelson, Straw, Miliband, Darling - have to the guts to either stop this or dip their hands in blood.

The Ice Plot thickens

Coming up to 3pm in the Polar Plot. Shaun Woodward, a former Tory now Northern Ireland Minister is on TV defending Mr Brown. Is that the best they can do, we ask? He's actually booked on to speak about Northern Ireland anyway.

Woodward has a point - the country will be simply astonished (and probably dismayed) at the behaviour of the plotters.

Brown's convoy has just left the Commons after two hours and fifteen minutes of what is being described as crisis talks, by the Standard's Paul Waugh.

In other swirling the snowflakes fall etc (take in colour)..Jack Straw is said to be ready to lead the rebuttal operation and Peter Mandelson is due on Newsnight tonight. I had planned to go to the cinema, but hey ho.

Lunchtime comes and goes and no cabinet minister on the airwaves

Still no sign of a cabinet minister on TV saying "I love Gordon" and it has now gone two o'clock? Where are they?

This lunchtime has been the witching hour, the cabinet have to decide to stand by their desks or join the rebels.

By six pm the BBC should have rounded them all up and this putsch will be over and we can move on to discussing how low Labour's poll rating can go, or the ball will be on the slates.

What happens then? There is no mechanism for a referendum on Gordon Brown's leadership. Labour elects leaders through an electoral college of trade unions, party members and politicians so this Hoon/Hewitt move could be dismissed out of hand.

There could be challenge to Tony Lloyd though, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, at any time and his heavy defeat at the hands of a Kamakazi rebel candidate would be a symbolic message for Gordon Brown.

Number Ten are said to be relaxed (ha!) and feel that some Blairites have simply lost the plot completely. Gordon's old spin doctor Charlie Wheelan, looked equally at ease as he watched Patricia Hewitt explaining on Sky TV that this was not a coup attempt(Nice Harris Tweed coat by the way, Charlie).

Journalists and pundits queuing up for the camera but no sign of Peter. Come on Lord Mandelson, bring Act 1 to a dramatic climax.

Slushy coup underway - latest from the lobby corridor

Today I was going to write about Teresa May's red suede boots, slush on the pavements in London (big news story that) and Gordon Brown's quite good performance at Prime Minister's questions but - hold page 6 - a coup is underway in the Commons.

Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, two ex-Blairite Ministers have launched a bid to have a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership. The coup was launched at 12.15 by twitter and text, halfway through Question Time. By then David Cameron had sat down and it was only the blackberrys being passed around the Conservative benches and the swift exit of the Prime Minister's spokesman from the press gallery that alerted us.

The lobby was virtually empty when we got down there and the odd Labour rebel left didn't think this latest (too late?) attempt would amount to anything more than a pile of slush.

The rumours about cabinet resignations and Mandelson's fall out with Downing Street started the moment the Commons returned yesterday. Apparently Brown knew about it just before mid-day when he stood up and gave a super-charged performance at the dispatch box.

Hewitt is on the World at One just now calling for all labour MPs to have a secret ballot. I paraphrase: "If the ballot produces a clear statement of support then those who call from him to go will just have to shut up and get behind him, and we would get united behind him going into the election."

"We're not calling on Gordon to go," she's said. That will raise a gallows laugh in Number Ten. "This is not an attempted coup, this is an attempt to get this sorted once and for all, and then make sure we get rid of this backbiting and concentrate our fire on the hollowness of Cameron and the Conservatives."

What a gift for the opposition, they just have to write a thank you note to the plotters. Angus Roberston, SNP leader, has just been in here calling it all a "Kamakazi car crash". Rebel Labour MPs even think this will end strengthening Brown and the cabinet, none of whom have the courage to walk out and take Mr Brown on openly. The consensus is that the moment passed when James Purnell walked out last summer.

What will probably emerge is Brown strengthened, exactly what the Tories want because every opinion poll tells them that Labour can't win with Brown as leader.

People to watch - apart from the promised press conference later - are Peter Mandelson who will either save him or bury him in the next 24 hours. Keep your eye on Downing Street, oh and on Harriet Harman I'd say.

Bet Mr Brown is glad he didn't start his tour of the south of England today after all.