In politics the first rule of plotting is that you have to have a candidate, someone to replace the leader you hope to get rid of.
This may not be true of FTSE 100 companies or the Premier League, where there is a large international market in vaguely plausible executive talent. Politics isn’t like that: there are rarely more than two or three options.
That’s what makes the past five days of bogus melodrama over the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, so ridiculous. Thank goodness the Guardian has kept its nerve. Sure, many of the shadowy wannabe-Cassius conspirators on the Labour benches do have a candidate: the former home secretary and all-purpose good guy, Alan Johnson. But as the Fleet Street commentariat has reluctantly started to acknowledge in their long weekend features, there’s a large fly in that ointment: Johnson won’t take the job even if wrapped in pink ribbon.
He has made that clear. For the avoidance of any doubt: “I have no intention of going back to frontline politics,” Johnson said at the weekend. I think that passes the General Sherman test, set when the US civil war hero was pressed to run for president in 1864: “ I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” It’s a handy formula by which to test the weasel words brigade; many fail and would this time if pressed.
They won’t be pressed this side of the May general election, of course. As old enemies as diverse as Ken Livingstone and Neil Kinnock are united in saying Miliband will be Labour leader on polling day. Whether or not he will emerge as prime minister the next day, or in the chaotic negotiations which may follow, is more problematic. I put it no stronger. Voters are in a self-harming mood and seem determined to make sure they all lose.
So what has it all been about? I’d say about one-third genuine new evidence that Miliband’s leadership strategy for winning the 2015 election is in deeper trouble than acknowledged; one-third the usual mixture of Labour flapping and plotting as MPs and activists realise how another defeat may impact on them and their party; one-third media mischief, itself a mix of pro-Tory artillery barrage and the familiar temptation (how well I know it) to peddle an easy-to-write story which will command prominent headlines.
That blame allocation is probably generous to the media, which can be pretty hard-boiled and cynical during this sort of frenzy. Yes, Miliband did make a disastrously misjudged speech at a poorly organised party conference. Yes, he’s mishandled other issues (immigration, but not Europe, in my opinion), as he did that bacon sandwich. Yes, some new polling is pretty grisly – as in Scotland’s referendum YouGov seems to have come up with a handy eye-catcher again – though basically more of the same. Definitely worth some inside page analysis, even in the New Statesman.
Oh yes, and Labour almost lost the Heywood and Middleton byelection to Ukip, the self-harmer’s party of choice. But it didn’t lose, whereas the Tories did lose Clacton to a Ukip defector, the lantern-jawed Douglas Carswell, whose burning sense of integrity drove him into the arms of Nigel Farage like a nun to a brothel. Did anyone mention Tory splits on page one? Not for days.
Objectively, as we might say, the real story this autumn has been successive Downing Street failures to hold either the coalition together – the Lib Dems are getting very fractious, but so is the Tory right – or to keep Ukip at bay. David Cameron and George Osborne engage in appeasement, not confrontation, appeasement which fails to appease either woad-wearers at home or EU allies in Berlin and elsewhere. They are starting to use the same sort of Brexit language about British EU membership that the Tory appeasers use at home.
This is all scarily dangerous stuff which could end badly: Britain out of the EU, Scotland (possibly Northern Ireland too) out of the union, the financial services industry – which props up our fragile lopsided economy – out of London, taking a lot of money with it. Talking about “sinking giggling into the sea” – a phrase popular in the squalid 60s – it may be more a case of “snarling” while we sink. “Poppy Day terror plots” and “Was Jesus married?” are the order of the day.
Apart from the Ukip threat in the Rochester byelection and Cameron’s U-turn on roads policy, Monday’s real big story – not prominent on front pages, though leading Radio 4 bulletins – is the Tory revolt over the European arrest warrant (EAW). The home secretary, Theresa May, has been robust in her appeasement of wayward backbenchers, but also robust in her defence of the revised EAW, some of its glitches now ironed out. The revolt will shrink as less-than-brave Tory MPs parade their consciences but draw back from voting against a measure which, on balance, serves us all.
As with immigration, there is plenty Britain can do without picking a fight with Brussels, which is, admittedly, more fun and always more newsworthy. Boris Johnson’s career was built on a mixture of talent, chutzpah and flammed-up stories about Brussels. One day someone will call his bluff. Where are you when you’re needed, Mr Blair? Oh yes, making money you don’t need. The Tories believe in the leadership principle and have Boris in the wings: Labour doesn’t and doesn’t.
So what of Miliband? It’s possible to feel sorry for him: I do, in an avuncular way, but not much or for long. He elbowed aside his brother when he didn’t have to, he surrounded himself with comfort-zone advisers, Oxford and Hampstead or just more leftwing than sensible. Jon Trickett, for example, is a good man who once reminded me that the rhetoric of struggle in old, depressed mining areas easily transfers allegiance from communist to BNP, Front National or Ukip. But Miliband is his own Trickett; what he needs at his elbow is a Mandelson.
Few MPs, past or present, of any consequence have broken cover to support claims that 20 or so shadow ministers want Ed to go. The stories this weekend have been full of “ifs” and “coulds” and “maybes”, mostly wishful thinking by MPs who know they are in a hole but also know they’re likely to stay there – hoping “Mine’s a Pint” Farage rescues them from their folly.
Strictly speaking it was the major unions’ folly, since MPs voted for Brother David. But even Unite’s Len McCluskey seems to be getting tired of him. Bad show, Len. Where’s your solidarity?
The brutal fact is that it would be a waste of the next leader of the Labour party – whoever he or she may be – to throw them to the wolves now. Contrary to what the obituary writers are saying, someone will – almost certainly – rebuild it as a fighting machine with policies and a leader voters can embrace. Who will that be? I don’t know, but I have one or two names that the pundits never mention. I’m keeping them a secret.
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