The current “febrile atmosphere in Westminster”, as everyone is calling it, is not something I have had the pleasure to witness directly: I’ve been nowhere near parliament for months. But anyone who reads the papers and watches the television news can tell that the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the grip of the most serious of its periodic fits of hysteria for more than 25 years.
The expenses scandal has hit Labour harder than the other parties – partly because it is in government, partly because there is a feeling among traditional Labour supporters that what many MPs have done in claiming expenses to fund property speculation and lavish lifestyles is radically at odds with what Labour should stand for. Gordon Brown has not covered himself in glory in dealing with the problem – though it’s difficult to see what exactly he could have done much better in the circumstances – and as the party faces what looks set to be a drubbing in today’s European and county council elections, two cabinet ministers and two other ministers have resigned from the government in advance of a widely flagged reshuffle. Meanwhile, backbench Labour MPs are trying to put together a petition demanding that Brown stands down now.
I have no more idea than anyone else how this will pan out over the next few days. My hunch is that Brown will neither resign over Labour’s disastrous election performance nor provoke a revolt that forces him out with his reshuffle. He doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t have to go, and there is no alternative Labour leader that opinion polls suggest would rescue Labour from ignominious defeat at a general election.
I hope my hunch is right – not because I think Brown is the right person to lead Labour into the next general election but because it would be utterly stupid for him to stand down now. Labour’s priority for this summer must be to weed out all the MPs who have abused the expenses system and replace them as parliamentary candidates, and a leadership election would prevent that from happening. Can you imagine Labour’s NEC sub-committee calling in alleged expenses fiddlers who are on the campaign teams of would-be leaders? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
What’s more, a new Labour leader elected this summer would be under massive pressure as prime minister from the media and the public to call a general election in autumn – which would be entirely against Labour’s electoral interests. On one hand, the brand would still be toxic because the leadership change had prevented the necessary cleansing of Labour’s parliamentary ranks. On the other, the chances of the economy having picked up sufficiently to provide voters with a reason to return to Labour would be extremely slim.
Gordon should go, but now is not the time. He should oversee a purge this summer, starting with a really brutal cabinet reshuffle to ensure that no one at the top table has dirty hands. Then he should announce his retirement gracefully in his party conference speech in the autumn, offering to stay on as PM until the Labour leadership election is complete to ensure a smooth handover to his successor by Xmas. Whoever took over could then announce a spring general election – and who knows, Labour might not even lose that badly …
Will it happen? I doubt it. But I live in hope.
Right, now off to vote (Labour of course).