A Very British Crisis

Not so smiley anymore...

Not so smiley anymore...

Jerry Springer appeared on This Week last night asking why the British system seemed such a contrast to the American in democratic terms: all this talk of when the PM should call an election was to Springer entirely alien. Don’t the people get to decide, or at least receive a constitutional guarantee about, when an election might be?

The really pertinent contrast between the UK and US political spheres yesterday seemed to me, however, something a little different: yes, the joy of an executive drawn from the legislature, and the PM’s power to call elections, is something to carp on about another time; but yesterday, purely through the power of his eloquence, Barack Obama receive huge applause from a Muslim audience. Obama is a communicator par excellence, able to prepare, defuse and persuade any audience not preternaturally opposed to him. The British Prime Minister, on the other hand, seems entirely without the ability to sell his own government. A Prime Minister is his own administration’s principle public relations man; Brown is so ill-equipped to perform this role that his administration has found itself in the sad state we wake up to today.

He can’t even persuade his own Cabiner ministers – four resignations in as many days is a woeful record, and in particular James Purnell’s resignation last night was incendiary. My assumption was that as soon as a minister felt he or she could speak out against Brown in public, the wheels would come off. This has not happened – Brown has simply admitted his own weakness in this morning’s damp squib of a reshuffle and let his minister’s demand their own terms. So Alistair Darling, discredited by a week of briefings to the effect that he would be moved, stays at the Exchequer; David Miliband, studiously abandoning his friend Purnell to the wilderness, keeps the Foreign Secretary’s Job; Brown’s putative successor, Alan Johnson, fresh from his insistence that no one – including himself – could do the PM’s job better than Brown, is rewarded with the third great office of state.

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In the teeth of this rallying, the rumoured backbench revolt must surely be stalled. Douglas Alexander was interviewed by the BBC this morning and admitted to thinking deeply about his approach. When even one of Gordon Brown’s closest allies must think long and hard about whether or not to support the Prime Minister, it is clear that it is simple calculation that is keeping him at Number 10: Labour MPs simply think that the electorate would not forgive them for ditching Brown. The Guardian writes a damning editorial this morning arguing that Brown must go; but the Labour Party’s most powerful members are wary of what that change would hold electorally. Simply put, any new leader would have to name a date for a General Election almost immediately – the sense this morning is clearly that Labour would be punished more with a second unelected leader than they would be under Brown.

Is this correct? Labour seems already to have lost Staffordshire, one of its last four county councils in England, whilst 7 of 10 seats in the Labour stronghold of Lincoln (traditionally afloat in the sea of Conservative Lincolnshire) had turned blue. This is wipe-out. The ineffectiveness of Brown’s reshuffle, which fails wholly to stamp a new brand on a discredited government, cannot hope to make a break with this political situation. Backbenchers are stalled, and what Diane Abbot and others have carefully characterised as a ‘Blairite coup’ seems to be fizzling out. But looking at these results – and fearing the European election results to be released on Sunday – those backbenchers may yet find that they are unconvinced by the Cabinet’s caution. My own hunch is that a new leader calling an election might staunch the flow of seats. It’s hard to see a scenario in which Labour can win the General Election, but if when it comes that poll is about damage limitation, how is it that Gordon Brown, who in the last week has shown an inability to unite anyone behind such a triage excercise, is seen as the man to lead a wounded party to the slaughter?

Ministers might be waiting for backbenchers to wield the knife; backbenchers might be discouraged by the cowardice of the leading candidates to replace Brown. There is no smooth way to end the mess, and this is driving the responses of all those who have refused to follow Purnell’s lead, but paralysis will look little better to the voter. The momentum of the putsch is over, but the inertia behind the narrative that Brown is finished and his party useless simply rolls ever onwards towards next May.

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