Labour conference: State of play

Brown on the ropes, rebellion in the ranks – will Labour be able to salvage its conference?

By Ian Dunt

It feels like this time last year. Gordon Brown’s leadership is vulnerable. The party is facing electoral annihilation. There’s rebellion in the party and discontent among delegates. But what can Labour salvage out of this conference? And will Brown face a last ditch attempt to expel him from the leadership?

The leadership challenge

The main obstacle to a leadership challenge is entirely temporal. There simply isn’t enough parliamentary time for a leadership contest. That’s not to write one off. It would take only one Cabinet resignation to trigger a potentially fatal leadership challenge. But Cabinet members – who would be the only individuals capable of prising the prime minister’s fingers from No 10 – are unlikely to try for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they’ve run out of time. A leadership contest would take at least two months, and Labour has to go to the polls in early June. Any challenger would then, according to the polls, still lose, although perhaps by a lower margin. Even that assumption is suspect, however. Pollsters hear that voters prefer anyone but Brown, but how would they react to the unpleasant sight of a party tearing itself to shreds after 12 years in power? So a challenger would require one of two characteristics: comfort with the idea of only being leader for a few months before leading his party to annihilation, or enough confidence to believe he could maintain his leadership in the wake of a crushing electoral defeat. Both characteristics require bravery, and that is something the Cabinet has shown precious little of.

That much was evident during the impotent challenge on Brown by a group of disparate and irritated Cabinet members – James Purnell, Caroline Flint and Hazel Blears among others – just before the summer. It required just one more move, from David Miliband ideally, and Brown’s fate would be sealed. But the move didn’t come, and the caution which typifies this Cabinet (and this government) serves as a useful tool to Brown.

The aim of the game

It’s difficult to foresee what outcome Labour HQ is aiming for by the end of conference. They’re wise enough to know that a post-conference bump in the polls – and the party may be too damaged even for that – will not be enough to save them. Establishing new dividing lines to carry into the general election will play a key role in party thinking. The signs are Brown has settled for his ‘compassionate, reluctant cuts vs savage and gleeful Tory cuts’. That probably won’t work, especially after a peculiar attempt to satisfy the right-wing press from Ed Balls, children’s secretary, who promised to save £3 billion by scrapping thousands of deputy head teachers’ jobs. Nevertheless, by the end of conference season, we’ll see a solid environment in which the general election will be fought.

Cabinet resignations

Brown’s main vulnerability now is Baroness Scotland. The admission by her former cleaner that Scotland had never seen her passport throws the entire justification for her retention – that the UK Borders Agency was satisfied she had checked the documentation – into chaos. It would be surprising if she survived this, but with Brown releasing a lengthy statement justifying her continued employment last week, he will be highly reluctant to do a U-turn on the issue now, and further compound his reputation as a ditherer. The chances of Cabinet resignations prompted by issues outside of Scotland’s cleaner are slim. Any rebellious Cabinet member would have quit during the last reshuffle rather than now. Nothing can be written off, but it would be surprising for anyone to jump this week. Journalists don’t know everything going on behind the scenes however, and the Cabinet’s main strength is that each individual knows he can always launch the nuclear option on Brown if there’s something he’s dissatisfied with. A personal slight, or some odd vendetta, could be enough to thrown the government into crisis again.

What could Labour salvage?

A desire to fight. Alistair Darling’s fascinating article in the Observer this weekend suggested Labour had given up the fight. He was quite right, and one of the burning irritations to delegates is the sense Labour is simply sleepwalking into defeat. If anything can come from conference, it would be a rejuvenated party willing to take the fight to the Tories rather than simply accepting the terms of the debate set by David Cameron and George Osborne. It is, however, unlikely to happen. Brown is too impotent and indecisive, the leadership is too split, the party too anaemic and out of ideas, and the political current has turned against them. But it is not too late to minimise the extent of a Tory victory, and memories of Thatcher’s Britain, and the long years of electoral wilderness, may be enough to convince activists and MPs to fight hard now that the time approaches. Being together for a week in packed meeting rooms could be enough to recharge the batteries.