A very British coup

January 7, 2010

By Stephen Murgatroyd
Troy Media

Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd

EDMONTON, AB Jan. 7, 2010/ Troy Media/ — It was a remarkable Wednesday in Westminster: an attempt was made to oust Gordon Brown as Prime Minister of Britain and the Leader of the Labour Party.

Two former cabinet ministers – Geoff Hoon and Patrician Hewitt – used an email to see if they could create the momentum required to force a vote amongst sitting Labour MP’s on Brown’s leadership. This very British coup, so near to a general election, is unprecedented in British parliamentary history.

But by the end of the day all of those seen as potential leadership contenders – Alan Johnson, David Milliband, Jack Straw, Lord Mandelson, Ed Balls, Alistair Darling – had come out in support of the status quo.

Grudging support for Brown

Only those who attempted a similar move last summer – Barry Sherman, Charles Clark and Frank Field, all former cabinet members -appeared to support the Hoon-Hewitt coup. Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Tony Lloyd says the plot had “not gone anywhere” among backbench MPs, many of whom are standing down at the next election, now expected on May 6th of this year.

Brown’s support, however, was grudging at best. Even the normally skilful Lord Mandelson focused on the important work of government rather than extolling the virtues of Brown as a leader.

This wasn’t the first attempt to end Brown political life. A similar move was headed by Charles Clark last summer. At that time, the Labour Party was close to 25 per centage points behind the Conservatives in pre-election polling. As of yesterday, the Labour Party was less than 10 points behind, despite a faltering economy, massive government spending debt and pending spending cuts.  

Hoon-Hewitt argue that a leadership ballot is needed to once and for all put the leadership question to rest and clear the air. If Brown won the ballot convincingly, it is suggested, then the voices of those opposing him within the party would be silenced in the run up to the election. If he lost and he was forced to relinquish leadership, then maybe the change of leadership would save the party from humiliation.

The Conservative Party simply cannot believe their luck. They are using the Hoon-Hewitt move as a vehicle for demanding an earlier election – March rather than May. They are also using it to challenge the ability of the Labour Party, now in serious financial trouble, to govern the country when it cannot manage itself. The coup also conveniently helped them cover up their own poor performance after the holidays.

But while the “noises off”, as one cabinet Minister called the coup attempt, are likely to rumble on for the next few days, the challenge to Brown’s leadership seems to have died out for now. But it does reveal that all is not well within the Labour Party caucus.

The coup was fronted by Hoon-Hewitt on behalf of six disgruntled cabinet Ministers who had, during the holidays, privately expressed the view that Brown as leader was an electoral catastrophe in the making. David Milliband, the Foreign Secretary, is said to have hinted that he would make a leadership bid if the plotters created the opportunity. Others willing to support a change were said to be Harriet Harman,  Bob Ainsworth, Jack Straw, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander. While there is no evidence that any of those named was involved in planning the aborted coup attempt, both Hoon and Hewitt expressed surprise that none of those who had indicated concern stood up to be counted when the call came. In particular, there is a high degree of frustration with Milliband, who has flirted and courted the leadership but “bottles out” each time an opportunity emerges.

Brown himself seems unmoved by the concerns behind the coup attempt. He is who he is and he will continue to do what he does. Those who expect him to change or become some lighter shade of Brown are condemned to be disappointed. While his competence as a leader is questionable, no one else with the clear support of the majority of the Labour Party has emerged as an alternative

Labour worried about its future

They are stuck with him, at least until after the election. The irony is that Brown was actually finally having a good week. He gave a bravura performance at the weekly Prime Ministers questions – a tradition of the House of Commons. He also made clear that he was handling the most recent crisis with aplomb, which this week was the weather. He called in the troops.

The coup, however, reflects a growing unease and anxiety within the party about its future

While it is seeking a fourth term, something rare in modern times in British politics, the question that has to be answered is why? Because of the recession, high unemployment and high debt levels, whoever wins will be cutting government programs, not exactly a step to increasing their popularity. There is also a mood for change and austerity in Britain.

But the issue for the Labour Party remains the same: is Brown the man to steer them through these troubled waters? The failure of the coup attempt is that Brown will steer them – only time will tell if he can lead them to safety.

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