Is is time for a McCain-style gamble?
Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, has launched another not-so-subtle attack on Gordon Brown, claiming in the New Statesman that Labour “is destined to disaster if we go on as we are” and that “we will not allow that to happen”.
In spite of some fairly significant pressing concerns about the Party and the Government, fully a quarter of the article is given over to complaints that the term ‘Blairite’ is being used as a slur – to demonise those who disagree with the Prime Minister, by tying them to an imagined agenda of social policy out-of-step with the Labour Party. Clarke concludes his article with two telling sentences: “There is no Blairite ideology” and “similarly, there is no Blairite plot”.
It is difficult to know how Brown should respond to this. It is not the first time that the former Home Secretary has issued a rather insipid challenge, and in the absence of any serious threat amidst the rumblings, I am not sure that dignifying Clarke with a direct response would be wise. And yet he needs to do something – to simply allow this sort of talk the license to snipe away at his Premiership diminishes him as the leader of his party.
So what response? Much has been made of the re-shuffle that never was, and might now never be. Miliband and Purnell apparently said they would resign rather than move, other Labour stalwarts have threatened revolt if former-Tory Sean Woodward replaced Des Browne at Defence. Now Alistair Darling is giving two-day interviews to the previously-Brownite Guardian, to justify his position in public. The received wisdom is that, with a by-election pending, the PM is simply too weak politically to reshuffle his Cabinet.
Across the Atlantic, there have been plaudits for John McCain’s choice of Vice Presidential running-mate – a selection so bold, that even some serious concerns could not override the game-changing nature of his decision. Even where people questioned the prudence of picking Sarah Palin, no-one could deny it was gutsy. I wonder if things are now so stagnant for Brown, that he needs to do something similarly drastic.
What would be as monumental for Brown as picking Palin? I think he needs to ‘throw an elbow’ and to do it on live television. To put one of the Big Beasts of his Cabinet to the sword would remind the Party of the ruthessness he showed in attaining the Premiership, albeit that has been absent in occupying Number 10. It would give him some momentum, and perhaps quell the less-than-committed attempts to oust him.
If Charles Clarke is right, and there is no alternative Blairite social agenda, and no Blairite plot, what does Brown have to lose by moving against David Milband in a reshuffle?
Of course, there is a chance that Miliband might immediately raise an army of 70-odd backbenchers’ signatures against the PM, but I’m not sure that he has that sort of grassroots support within the PLP. If shortly after Conference, having been forced to swear loyalty to the PM in a prime time address, would a complete volte-face be politically possible for the Foreign Secretary? It would look like bitterness if he had been sacked from the Cabinet – and if it were the result of being offered a promotion (to Chancellor) over which he chose to resign, he would perhaps look somewhat petty. After his Guardian article, I am less convinced than ever that David Miliband is prepared to move openly against Brown.
The fact is that Charles Clarke is symptomatic of the attacks that the PM receives from his own side – no alternative, of policy or of leader, is ever publically suggested. Nigel Griffiths said today that “In 2007, he [Clarke] and Alan Milburn set up a think tank called 2020 Vision. It didn’t think, but it certainly tanked”. I wonder if ‘Blairite’ opposition to Brown has been, as I think Charles Clarke admits, completely mischaracterised and overstated, and whether moving to crush them publically might just be the filip that Brown’s premiership needs.
But would he dare?