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Monday, April 14, 2008 

The state of play.

There's nothing quite like a good media feeding frenzy over the apparent imminent demise of the Labour government as we know it. Cabinet ministers are literally at each other's throats, with the Telegraph alleging in an article which was later mysteriously pulled that Jack Straw and Ed Balls had almost come to blows over who was responsible for youth crime, while the former is apparently greatly perturbed by the continuing obsession with extending the detention limit for "terrorist suspects"; there's a potential civil war breaking out between "old" and "new" Brownites over their master's newly installed spin doctors; and all while the man himself is according to some briefings by nameless individuals sinking into "clinical depression", breaking three mobile phones a week in fits of pique, and possibly even faced by a potential leadership challenge.

The one that will probably hurt the most is that article in the Mail, his wooing and friendship with Paul Dacre apparently unable to stop such wounding old jibes as being "psychologically flawed" from re-appearing alongside newer even less flattering accusations. The most dispiriting recent criticism however though will be the one from Rory Bremner, because it passes the Homer Simpson challenge of being funny and true: "[I]t's a bit like having an uncle who's been building something in the shed at the bottom of the garden for the past 10 years, and you go down to see what he's up to, and you look through the window - and there's nothing there." Even Pollyanna Toynbee expanded on this point, writing on Friday that "[T]he Wizard of Oz stands exposed, the emperor has no clothes, the box of secrets is empty." When even the most nominally loyal of Brown nosers seems to be having recurring doubts over her past man in shining armour, it might well be time for the panic stations to be manned.

Or is it? It's easily forgotten, but Blair had numerous weekends of bad publicity, albeit not as early into his reign as Brown currently is. Often there were rumours that this was the week, when Blair was going to be challenged strongly, and where it was all falling apart, all for it have blown over completely by Tuesday. Typically, on those weekends it was often the highly sympathetic to Blair Martin Kettle who was one of the few fighting in the opposite direction, whereas on Saturday he was alongside most of the others with the knives, sticking them into Gordon's shoulder blades. Although there are accounts among the briefings that it's not the familiar bleating Blairites who are doing the blade-sharpening, the journalists doing the talking, such as Kettle and John Rentoul certainly are Blairite sympathisers, while Charles Clarke, although not a Blairite but certainly on the "modernising" wing of the party, is the one supposedly collecting names towards a challenge.

To suggest this is some sort of highly delayed Blair-influenced coup though would be completely over-the-top. Those most aggrieved by Brown's performance are undoubtedly the backbenchers themselves, more than sensitive towards the dismal polls which suggest that the Tories are moving beyond the numbers needed to get a firm majority, even if only so far backed up by the often erratic and wrong YouGuv survey. That by most accounts Brown was dismissive or even in denial during the recent meeting with backbenchers, where the main grievances were the abolition of the 10p top rate of tax, targeting those both most likely to turn out and vote Labour, as well as the closing of local post offices, impressed on some that perhaps the whispers that Gordon wasn't up to the job might have been right all along.

How much of this is media frenzy is difficult precisely to judge. There are two obvious main points however that mitigate against some, if not most of it. Firstly, that it would be absolute madness for there to be an attempt to depose Brown, especially as the economic gloom continues to deepen. That really would be the end for Labour in government, to be conducting open warfare while also still pretending to be feeling the pain, even if that's what appears to be going on now behind closed doors. Secondly, that there is no one at all waiting in the wings in Labour to take over. Clarke's bid is clearly not completely serious in its aims, but it does sum up his continuing loathing of Brown for whatever reason. Others have mentioned David Miliband, who rejected the attempts to become a stop Brown candidate previously and isn't ready in any case, and Alan Johnson, who'd just be a genial stop gap with a sympathetic background, but can anyone seriously imagine any of them, or indeed almost anyone in the cabinet or the wider party that would stand a better chance against Cameron? Some who might fancy their chances in a leadership campaign were Labour to lose the next election and Gordon to resign simply currently don't have the necessary profile or backing to make any attempt now.

The main case against Brown currently is as Jackie Ashley set out this morning, that rather being a disaster, Brown has been a disappointment. I would add that the disappointment has been on the scale of being crushing. Few had real hopes for Brown, rather the early enthusiasm was that Blair had finally gone. Even by those standards Brown has failed to live up to his billing, as the difference between him and Blair has proved, as some always argued it would be, to be so slight as to be inconsequential. Despite a decent start we're back seemingly in the old vacuum, where huge paychecks are celebrated as the poor get stuffed, where the private is always better than the public regardless of the cost, and where basic rights are something to be ignored or thrust aside at the first excuse. The Guardian at the weekend offered three things that Brown could do which might help turn the tide, all eminently sensible: full immediate withdrawal from Iraq; ditch ID cards; and radical constitutional change, perhaps even the alternative vote before the next election. It's hard to disagree with any of those, except perhaps the latter on the grounds that it would be seen now, probably quite fairly, as being an attempt to keep the Tories out as they look to be about to regain power, but Brown doing any of them is a flight of complete fantasy.

There's no solace either in the idea that Labour can afford to lose the next election in order to reinvigorate itself out of office. Those coming through the ranks are not the radicals needed but a careerist clique that increasingly don't seem to have had any job other than either being a politician or in PR, the City or marketing. Party politics as we know it is moribund, but no one is interested in the one thing that would shake it up, which is the aforementioned constitutional change, not least the Tories that have always loathed the idea while the current system still works for them. It might well come down to how Cameron and his similarly unimpressive colleagues who also offer no real change other than the same politics with a slightly harsher face govern that determines just where the real opposition and left alternative emerges from.

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