Melanie Phillips

18 January 2010

The drowning men of British politics

Published in: Daily Mail

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Has there ever been a more fraught or agonising process to replace one towering figure by another? (And no, I'm not talking Jonathan Ross or Chris Evans here).

What actually happened in last week's abortive coup to unseat Gordon Brown is still as murky as the Pennines in the recent blizzards.

The question remains whether this was a spectacularly botched operation by the coup leaders, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt -- or the first phase of a hard-headed if desperate and messy end-game strategy.

It is more than a touch implausible that the pair believed their call for a ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership would be followed by a stream of ministers flocking to resign and thus forcing him out.

Politicians as experienced as Hoon and Hewitt must have known that courage and clear-sightedness are not the most conspicuous characteristics among their erstwhile Cabinet colleagues.

So might this have been another strategy altogether --to weaken Brown so badly that sometime before the General Election he will have to be stretchered off the political scene?

After all, the sniping against him is far from over. By an amazing coincidence, only yesterday a devastating book by the former General Secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt, was serialised in the Mail on Sunday.

Watt, who resigned in acrimony over his alleged complicity in a party funding scandal, clearly has scores to settle. But his account of Brown's serial dysfunctionality, staggering incompetence and frankly downright bizarre behaviour still hammers home just how damaging to the national interest Brown has been for so long.

Nevertheless, if the intention really was to weaken the Prime Minister through a process of attrition, Hoon and Hewitt must equally have realised the enormous risks for their party of such a gamble.

For they might have ended up merely damaging beyond repair in the eyes of the public the leader who will still take Labour into the election; or even provoking such internal strife that the party simply falls apart between now and election day.

So was the coup a monumental car-crash after all? Some think that, on the contrary, Brown is now the captive of those in his Cabinet who wrung concessions out of him last week as a condition of their support.

For sure, the Prime Minister has been weakened. But the idea that, as the Blairites want, he now really will seek to appeal to middle Britain rather than to Labour's tribal core vote and will reduce the influence of his chief consigliere, the unreconstructed 'old Labour' dinosaur Ed Balls, is surely whistling in the wind.

Look at the remarks made by Chancellor Alistair Darling immediately after the attempted coup, which are said to show that Brown now accepts he will have to make the case for deep cuts in public spending rather than pose as the champion of 'investment'.

What Darling actually said, however, was that Labour will have to inflict the toughest spending cuts for 20 years -- and that Brown knew that, as far as the Chancellor is concerned, this position was non-negotiable. So what Darling was actually saying was not that Brown had accepted the case for cuts --but that Darling would resign if he did not.

This was followed in turn yesterday by Ed Balls defiantly repeating his 'Labour investment versus Tory cuts' mantra.

So the great internal fight over strategy is not over at all, but is actually intensifying by the day.

The attempt to get rid of Brown resembles one of those horror movies in which, however many times the stake is driven through the mummy's heart, it still staggers to its feet and continues to wreak havoc.

It is, though, a mistake to think that Brown alone is responsible for the chaos in the Labour Party. It was the fact that it had already lost its way that caused it to allow Brown to assume power unopposed in the first place.

It did so because there was no successor to Blair as a one-man, election-winning phenomenon who had the ability to persuade people to suspend their animosity towards the Labour project.

So undoubtedly it is time for a change of government. But alas, the Tory opposition does not present the clear alternative that people so desperately crave.

Last week's abortive coup against Brown obscured the fact that David Cameron was in serious difficulties himself. No sooner had he launched his election campaign than he was knocked off course, appearing to wobble over his commitment to restore tax breaks for married couples.

This reinforced the widespread impression that his agenda is incoherent and opportunist - the result of his appearing to face in two opposite directions at once on so many issues.

He wants simultaneously to appear both socially liberal and conservative - even though social liberalism, or 'lifestyle choice', is the direct enemy of the core values of family and nation which conservatism must defend if it is to mean anything at all.

When on his BBC1 show yesterday Andrew Marr asked Cameron whether he was a radical or a defender of the middle ground, the Tory leader's eyes registered for a split second a flicker of alarm before he replied smoothly that he was a 'modern compassionate conservative'.

The vacuousness of this formulation was revealed a few minutes later when he asked whether he agreed with the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, who argued in a powerful article last week that immigration should be significantly curbed.

In reply, Cameron said he wouldn't have put it in quite the words used by Lord Carey - but he agreed that Britain's population should not rise to 70 million because of the pressure this would cause on public services.

But Lord Carey had gone much further than this relatively uncontroversial concern. He said that Britain must uphold Christianity as the bedrock of Britain's democratic and liberal traditions, and warned of the inability to hold the line for British culture in the face of mass immigration by people determined to replace it by Islam.

Cameron's delicate side-stepping of this point suggested either that he didn't agree with Lord Carey or that he was too frightened to do so.

Either way, those millions who are desperate for a political party to reverse the loss of belief in this country's historic traditions and identity -- a demoralisation which lies at the root of its problems -- will have reinforced their dismal conclusion that they cannot look to today's Tory party for relief.

I have long lost count of those hitherto solid Conservative voters who say they will not vote Tory at the election because they feel abandoned over the core values agenda: Europe, immigration or human rights, where Cameron's pledges are manifestly vapid or contradictory, or the ambiguities and vacillations over marriage and 'lifestyle choice'.

It is Cameron's conspicuous failure to 'seal the deal' with the British public that is driving the Labour plotters. With the Tories still not far enough ahead in the polls, Labour's would-be regicides think that a new leader might well just tip the balance to make Labour the largest party in a hung parliament.

With both of them leading parties that no longer know what they are for, Cameron and Brown are like drowning men wrapped in a fatal embrace. But it is Britain itself that they are in danger of pulling below the waves.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie