Breaking the Gordon knot

Current British politics provides a striking contrast between then and now. A year ago, Gordon Brown had been Prime Minister for only three weeks, the Labour Party was scoring figures in the high 30s in the opinion polls and the Conservatives thought themselves threatened by an early General Election, which most of them expected to lose.

By William Rees-mogg

Published: Tue 29 Jul 2008, 9:24 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 11:12 AM

The City was just beginning to discuss some obscure financial problems in sub-prime mortgages in the United States and share markets had only just begun to show some nervousness.

No one expected the credit crunch that was to turn savage; no one foresaw the run on Northern Rock; no one thought Bear Stearns was at risk, let alone the American mortgage giants Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation); oil was $70 a barrel.

As far as Brown was concerned, it must have seemed all was well with the world: he could happily delay his decision on whether to cash in another Labour majority in an autumn General Election. He was admired for the confidence with which he handled crises such as the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

He was doing the job he had always wanted. 'Look here, upon this picture, and on this,' as Hamlet said to his mother.

Then Labour was an assured Government under an assured Prime Minister. Now the Prime Minister is surrounded with political and economic problems and personal and party unpopularity.

In the past three months Labour has suffered a succession of humiliating defeats: disastrous losses in the local elections; Boris Johnson being elected London Mayor; the loss of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election to the Conservatives; a fifth place in the Henley by-election; and then last week the loss of Glasgow East to the Scottish National Party.

Labour could well be panicked by this arctic drop in the political temperature. To the outsider, Labour seems to be immobilised, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car. The Glasgow result, with a swing of more than 22 per cent to the SNP in one of the safest of Labour seats, seems to rule out more than it rules in.

Brown cannot now call a General Election. The by-elections and the polls tell the same story. At an early Election, Labour would lose Scotland to the SNP and England to the Conservatives. The Conservatives would have an overall majority in the new Parliament. David Cameron would become the Prime Minister with the prospect of more than one term in the office. Brown would have to resign.

If there were an early Election, at least 100 Labour MPs could expect to lose their seats, perhaps as many as 200. It would be an electoral massacre.

If he cannot win an early Election, Brown may have no option but to go right on to the end of the road, and go to the polls in May or June 2010. This is an almost equally depressing course.

If Brown had the gift of oratory like David Cameron — and, indeed, Tony Blair — he would be looking forward to this autumn's Labour Party Conference where he could make a great conference speech and rally his troops. He would be like Henry V before Agincourt: 'He which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart.'

Unfortunately, Brown's range of roles does not run to the heroic. If he does succeed in making a rallying speech at the conference, it would be for the first time. Normally, his speeches have all the excitement of a finance director addressing his company's annual meeting. In the current situation, Brown will be judged on his conference speech; if it is dull, it will not help that it is worthy.

Next year there may be still more by-elections. So far, each by-election defeat has been more damaging to Labour than the previous one. The Tory victory at Crewe and Nantwich was indeed very damaging, but the loss of Glasgow to the SNP was a catastrophe.

That has opened the way to Labour's loss of Scotland, and without Scotland there might be little left of Labour's power base. So far, SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond has outmanoeuvred Labour in almost every battle. It is like Napoleon defeating the Austrian generals.

With or without by-election defeats, there will be losses for Labour in the local and European elections of 2009. Labour must expect its worst losses in the European elections. No doubt the Government hoped the Irish would vote 'Yes' to the Lisbon Treaty in their recent referendum. But they did not, and there is little prospect of a second Irish referendum voting 'Yes' in the near future.

Brown promised to hold a British referendum in the 2005 Labour manifesto, but he has not kept to it. Labour won the last Election on a false prospectus. More than 80 per cent of British voters still want to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. That is still a live issue, and it damages Labour.

In theory, Labour could still change its leader, but it will be difficult to have a third Labour Prime Minister in one Parliament without a General Election. The voters did not like being bypassed when Brown succeeded Blair; they would like it still less if a third Prime Minister appeared without their endorsement. Perhaps Labour could squeeze in a successor for a few months and hope he or she would be less unpopular than Brown.

There are indeed a number of senior figures in the Labour Party who might hope to minimise the party's losses, saving at least a few seats. Brown might find the incessant strain of unsuccessful office too much for him. Jack Straw, Alan Johnson or Harriet Harman might do better than the younger men. Ed Balls would be a disaster as leader. Even this limited choice will not really arise until autumn 2009.

If there is no new leader, there will be continued unpopularity and successive defeats, let alone the looming recession, until Labour is finally turned out of office in 2010.

That is a miserable prospect for everyone, for the country as well as for the Prime Minister. Perhaps now for Labour 'things can only get worse'.

Lord William Rees-Mogg is a former editor of the Times. This column first appeared in the Mail on Sunday

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