Brown Clings to Power
Brown clings to power
What does it take to get rid of a Prime Minister? Not the worst election results since 1918. Nor the resignation of five members of the Cabinet. Nor even what is now constant pressure, hour by hour, of people calling for you to quit. Still Gordon Brown hangs on.
It is worth recapping just how bad the results were for Labour. As the Financial Times has pointed out:
• Labour is now the third party of local Government in England, with fewer councillors than the Liberal Democrats for the first time since the First World War. The party now controls no county councils
• Labour secured the lowest vote share ever recorded by a serving government in both elections
• Labour fell under 20 per cent vote share for the first time since 1910, when the party was four years old
• Labour lost a poll in Wales for the first time since the First Word War
• Labour was beaten by four parties in two UK regions of the country
• Labour recorded an eight per cent vote share in the South East.
So why does he still look as if he will survive? First, he has been helped by the weakness of his opponents. Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears, John Hutton, and Geoff Hoon all left the Government for very different reasons, and there is no evidence that the most anti-Brown of the rebels, Purnell, was part of a conspiracy. Only James Purnell publicly called on the PM to quit and he acted alone.
Indeed, there is an argument that Purnell’s resignation helped Brown to survive. Coming on the Thursday night after the polls closed, his letter helped position Mandelson as the key player. It also prevented Brown from making what could have been fatal Cabinet changes, particularly the Balls move to the Treasury.
Brown was also helped by the indecision of the putative pretenders, David Miliband and Alan Johnson, both of whom decided – probably at the last minute – that now was not the time to strike. They may have decided it was more important to ‘stay clean’ for the post-election defeat jockeying or doubted they would secure sufficient Cabinet support.
As PM, Brown also held more cards. The reshuffle – uninspiring though it was – was used as a loyalty test. That led to a couple of resignations but nothing dramatic. The reshuffle has been more about filling vacancies left by departing ministers than bringing in new blood.
The appointments of ministers of state have been similarly rushed. There have been few promotions of bright, up and coming MPs. Half a dozen ministers including Lord Paul Drayson (MoD and DBIS), Phil Woolas (Treasury and Home Office) and Rosie Winterton (Communities and DBIS), are working in two different departments.
The biggest winner from the reshuffle is Lord Mandelson himself. He was beside Brown when Purnell resigned. He called other Blairite ministers to secure their loyalty. He helped shape the reshuffle. His ‘baroque’ First Secretary of State title apart, he is now Deputy Prime Minister in all but name and has eclipsed Ed Balls as the PM’s right hand man.
The next 72 hours will be critical, particularly tonight’s meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, although backbench MPs rarely cause damage to a Leader. It now looks as if Brown will survive to fight another day and he will hope that a period of relative calm will return.
But, it probably isn’t all over for Brown. The strongest argument Mandelson used was that ditching the Leader now would cause a general election which would see half the PLP without a seat. In a few months’ time, that will no longer be a credible threat as the final date of the general election approaches. The rebels may feel that a disastrous result in the up-coming Norwich North by-election, or a major rebellion by backbench MPs on some yet to emerge issue could still be a serious threat to Brown’s continued but precarious hold on power – although that is probably wishful thinking. Number 10 will be congratulating itself on a job well done.
The Conservatives have the largest number of UK MEPs (24) and are the only party to have one in every region of Great Britain. However, resulting from the public outrage to the MPs expenses scandal and the boost of support this gave to UKIP, they did not make the gains anticipated in these elections a couple of months ago.
They will now see through their pledge to leave the EPP group of centre right parties in the European Parliament and to create a new group of European Conservatives who are against the creation of a federal Europe. This would include supporting Conservative opposition to the Lisbon Treaty. The rules of the Parliament state that an official group requires at least 25 members and that these should be drawn from 7 or more countries. The Conservatives are confident of achieving this and are expected to make further announcements on the membership of their new group within the ‘next few days’.
They have stated that members will be drawn from mainstream centre right parties across the EU, but they are mostly expected to come from Northern and Eastern Europe. The Conservatives have already announced that the Czech Civil Democrats (9 MEPs) will be members. It is also expected that the Polish Law and Justice Party (16 MEPs) will join along with the Latvian National Conservatives (1 MEP). There is a good chance that this new group could have over 50 MEPs which would make it the fourth largest in the European Parliament and give it the right to claim committee Chairs and memberships.
Despite opposition from other European centre right leaders and leading ‘pro-European’ Conservatives like Chris Patten, David Cameron has been determined to deliver on the promise he made during the leadership election and would face considerable public criticism from the right of the Party should he change his position now.