Thursday, 7 January 2010

Night of The Long Knives?

It was a very bad day at the office for Gordon Brown. Having only the day before been seen smiling like a Cheshire Cat with Peter Mandelson (he's Lord Mandelson to the rest of us) while unveiling a new container port development in Essex, he rose to find that a new, more sinister campaign had sparked to scupper his leadership.

No lesser persons than Geoff Hoon, whose own credibility was low after his appalling tenure as Defence Secretary and then the MP Expense scandal, and former party darling, Patricia Hewitt, had been texting Labour MPs to have a secret ballot to change the leadership. MPs were slow enough, ministers even slower, to rebuff such calls and when they did the wonderful world of equivocation was invoked with responses from the likes of Alistair Darling saying, 'We will concentrate on winning the election.'

Central to all this was the statement by the plotters that six serving ministers were prepared to back this if MPs supported the secret ballot. Among them were Harriet Harman, David Milliband and Bob Ainsworth, as unearthed by the BBC's Nick Robinson last night.

Peter Mandelson chose his moment carefully. He had only just been found guilty of openly pleading to his party to stop just focusing its election efforts on core Labour voters but to widen the message to include people who had voted for the New Labour dream at the last three elections. According to yesterday's Telegraph this had been induced as there was a growing rift between Brown and Mandelson which had been fuelled by the Pre-Budget Report which had been so focused on bankers. Clearly Mandelson feels we should not pick on bankers so much as he would like to be one when he is finished with politics, perhaps. Then last night, Mandelson came out to try and stop the revolt in its tracks by stating that Brown was 'secure in his position'.

It was, perhaps, the most dangerous outcome for Brown. There was not overwhelming support from either his cabinet or MPs - Mandelson had to step in and that has to be bad news.

Mandelson's original reconciliation with Brown at his lowest ebb in terms of popularity has led to a remarkable turnaround in fortunes and recently polls suggested that we could have a hung parliament or even a Labour win, such has been the magical effect. But Brown has been foolish enough to distance himself from Mandelson of late and rumours of a rift have been fanned. Mandelson only recently made a statement that he supported his own Government's stand on cutting the budget deficit as if he had to endorse it to give it credibility but why he waited so long is also a mystery.

The revolt may well have been scuppered but for Gordon Brown it has been at another heavy price. After having to ennoble his old nemesis and allow him to have a 3-year pay deal with Brussels on leaving his Commissioner post, Mandelson has had to step in again to save his skin. You will bet that Mandelson has dictated his terms and central to that will be how the election is campaigned for and a free hand in policy making.

As for the six named ministers, well we will see an unsightly scramble by each and all to distance themselves from the plot now that Mandelson has decreed there is not one. They really should have checked with him first, but you live and learn. Certainly for those six, their days in office under Brown will be numbered, but you never know how politics works and you would suspect that they will have a future under Lord Mandelson.

After all, they did exactly what he wanted - they reminded the Prime Minister just who is running the show.

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