Gordon Brown has had a terrible week-end. Apart from giving a good, solid speech at the D-Day ceremony in Normandy, where he was overshadowed by a powerful and evocative peroration by Barrack Obama, the plot to oust him continues, with the plotters emboldened by terrible election results for Brown’s governing Labour party.
In the municipal elections, the Labour Party lost some 284 seats and lost control of four municipal councils it had held prior to the election. Any map of the local election results shows strong conservative gains – they won 241 seats in total and gained control of ten councils, taking the number under their control to 30 with the Liberal Democrats gaining control of the City of Bristol.
In the European elections, Labour came third behind the Conservatives and the UK Independent Party (UKIP)– with Labour’s share of the poll down by 9% on the last European election results. Of the 69 seats available in the European Parliament for Britain (excluding Northern Ireland), Labour has won 13. Worse, the racist neo-fascist party, the British Nationalist Party (BNP), has won two seats despite an active campaign by all established political parties and Church leaders – a win that relied on disaffected Labour voters shifting to the far right. The BNP seats are in the traditional Labour area of Manchester, Yorkshire and Humberside. Even in Wales, a Labour heartland, the Conservative topped the polls. Less than 6% of eligible voters voted Labour – more people believe that Elvis is still alive. None of this is good for Labour and all of it is bad for Gordon Brown.
On Friday, Brown reshuffled his cabinet and left in place his expense scarred Chancellor and brought back into government Peter Hain, who left his position as Secretary of State over a sleight of hand in his election expenses. Adding four Ministers from outside parliament who will go to the House of Lords and serve from there, the reshuffle has failed to calm the anxieties within the Labour Party. Now the reshuffle of junior Ministers – those outside cabinet begins – and already there are resignations. The plotters continue to work to oust Brown as quickly as possible.
The plotters have found a new ally – Lord Falconer, a former Blair cabinet Minister, who has suggested that a leadership review would be appropriate. He said, during a television interview, speaking about the Labour party, that “we need unity above all. Can we get unity under the current leadership? I don't think so. The only way it can be achieved is a change of leader.” While he has a certain cache amongst the intellectual members of the Labour Party, he is not sufficiently placed to do to Brown what Geoffrey Howe did to Thatcher – he will not be the one to bring Brown down.
Former Brown cabinet Ministers, especially Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint, are planning a major assault on Brown’s leadership, focusing on both policy issues and also his inability to manage and work with others. Caroline Flint has already made clear that Brown finds it especially difficult to work with women. Leaked emails from Lord Mandelson, one of Brown’s newly strengthened cabinet Ministers, make clear that Mandelson sees Brown as both insecure and “angry”. Backbenchers continue to be asked to sign up to a no confidence letter to Brown – some now beginning to demand a leadership review. The discontent is palpable, the disillusionment is growing and the despair over the potential of a landslide Conservative victory when Britain finally has a general election is real.
Brown has played his major card – the reshuffle of his cabinet and changed in non Cabinet Ministerial appointments. What will follow, as he made clear in his press conference on Friday, is a clear and sharp agenda for change and a platform for Labour’s election manifesto. It will not be enough. The electorate is sending clear and unequivocal messages to the party and Brown is refusing to hear them. More of the same, with the face and voice of the message changing only slightly, will not be enough to save Brown from the anger of the people. He is finished, knows it, but refuses to accept it.
It is not, however, a time for David Cameron to gloat. The leader of the Conservative Party has to be very careful. Brown laid out a challenge to him on Friday by repeating his mantra “you cannot cut your way out of a recession”. This despite the fact that his own Government’s budget makes clear that there will be significant and substantial cuts in public spending from 2011 onwards – after the general election. Brown wants to push Cameron into a spend versus cuts campaign, when in fact both parties will have to cut public spending deeply to get Britain back on track.
British politics is frenzied and dangerous right now. Frenzied if you are trying to follow it – so many twist and turns. Dangerous if you are in the midst of it. None of these shenanigans are helping the work of government and it is this that the electorate cares about.