GE 2010 Analysis: How secure is each party leader?

None of the three main party leaders is safe today. Each one faces challenges from within their own party.

By Matthew West

Gordon Brown is clearly the most obviously at risk among the three leaders.

Having achieved 30% of the popular vote and having already survived four attempts to get rid of him as leader by those within his own party – the most recent in January of this year – Brown is fighting for his political life.

And he may only have hours left.

If the Liberal Democrats do a deal with the Conservatives then the prime minister will be forced to resign and recommend to the Queen that she appoint David Cameron as prime minister in order to provide a stable government.

That might happen even if the Lib Dems don’t do a deal with the Tories but also can’t reach agreement with Labour as Brown might be convinced to step down by his own party if he can’t agree terms with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg.

The Lib Dems could feasibly say the only way they will work with Labour is if Brown resigns as prime minister.

The issue of voting reform is not one that Labour and the Lib Dems will argue about: both are committed to such reform and Brown in his statement outside Downing Street earlier has essentially promised the Lib Dems a referendum on electoral reform in the Queen’s Speech.

Much will depend on whether the Lib Dems feel they can force Brown to resign and whether they feel they are in a strong enough position to make such demands. It’s unlikely they will come to that conclusion whatever the media might suggest.

All of this is, of course, jumping the gun a bit as the Lib Dems are not talking to Labour yet. Moreover, Clegg said he couldn’t, morally, back Brown if Labour came third in the popular vote. But he didn’t – he came second and that may makes all the difference.

Also the public would be very unwilling to accept another unelected prime minister, either in the form of Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, or Clegg, who given his pronouncements on Brown not having the moral justification to govern if he came third, could not then accept the keys to Number 10 himself with such a low percentage of the popular vote.

But one thing to bear in mind is that David Miiband has been remarkably quiet over the issue of the leadership of the Labour party in recent weeks, studiously making sure he doesn’t fall into the type of trap he seemed to walk into so willingly in the Autumn of 2008.

He has built up support within the party. Alan Johnson is rumoured to be willing to stand aside in favour of the foreign secretary and it has been suggested that Dagenham MP John Cruddas is a known admirer of Miliband and could bring the crucial union support Miliband would need to secure the leadership of the party.

Much will depend on the role Lord Mandelson plays in all of this and whether he believes the prime minister can continue.

David Cameron meanwhile faces his own internal problems. One prominent Tory commentator and journalist – and I do mean very prominent – suggested last week that if Cameron didn’t secure a majority the Conservative party would “have his balls”. When asked how big a majority Cameron needed to secure he simply said: “One, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s a majority. If it’s not it could well be curtains for him.” When I put that to William Hague hours later he looked genuinely shaken.

But look what has happened within hours of the election resulting in a hung parliament.

We’ve seen Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, owned by Lord Ashcroft, claiming that the Conservative party grass roots were dismayed and extremely unhappy about the way in which the election campaign was run. The knives for Cameron may already be coming out.

Moreover why on earth did Cameron decide to wait so long before making a statement and thus allowing Brown to get out to the press first? That shows an extreme level of political naivety.

I had a conversation last year with a man whose father had been a civil servant mandarin in the 1970’s working for Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

He told me his father had suggested that Cameron was nothing more than a front man for the Conservatives. He said the real power within the party was with Hague and even went as far as to suggest that Hague could take over from Cameron either at the end of Cameron’s first term in office or even during it. While these can be dismissed as nothing more than theories without any proof I wonder how far from the truth the theory might be?

Cameron faces two problems. Firstly, he hasn’t enough seats to form a minority government and has yet the opportunity to even lay claim to having the right to do so. Secondly, he knows he cannot promise the Lib Dems a referendum on electoral reform. He can’t even offer a referendum on voting reform under the proviso that the Conservatives are able to campaign against it because Labour and the Lib Dems will unite to make the case for electoral reform and if they win the argument the Conservatives would be consigned to the political wilderness.

Cameron would not be able to contain those within his own party, and within his shadow Cabinet, that are so utterly opposed to electoral reform. Put simply, because he hasn’t won a majority he can’t do anything without the agreement of his colleagues and electoral reform is an issue which would risk splitting the Conservatives.

And as if to prove the point the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, has bluntly condemned the Conservative offer of talks on reform. He has tweeted: “In entering coalition talks, Cameron tests his authority within party. Inquiry into electoral reform? The Spectator cannot support this.”

So what about Clegg? How vulnerable is he? The simple fact is he is as vulnerable as the other two party leaders. He may have been the first to make a statement in which he laid out the cost of his allegiance (a referendum on voting reform and tax reform) but he still cannot take his party into an alliance with the Conservatives.

The Lib Dem leader managed his situation extremely well. By setting out his stall and saying he would talk to the Conservatives first he was actually shutting the door firmly in Cameron’s face. Clegg knows that Cameron can’t give him a referendum on voting reform or tax reform. But he has to be able to show the electorate that he gave Cameron the chance. He can then say that Cameron wasn’t willing to negotiate and that he is now willing to talk to Brown.

The fact that the Lib Dems have been calling for electoral reform for decades should not be underestimated, however. If Clegg fails to secure a referendum on electoral reform his party will never forgive him. This is the best chance the party has ever had. And if a form of proportional representation had been used in this election it would have given the Lib Dems 150 seats in this parliament. There isn’t a single Lib Dem that doesn’t know that and doesn’t understand the opportunity the party now has to achieve a lifelong ambition.

And don’t underestimate the genuine dislike of the Conservatives that many Lib Dems feel to their core. There are enough people in Clegg’s own shadow team who would find the idea of working with the Tories abhorrent. When Brown said in his statement that Labour and the Lib Dems had more in common he was merely stating a fact.

Cameron’s statement to the press hasn’t helped the Conservative position but it has provided Clegg with the biggest test of his political career. Does he negotiate with the Conservatives when all they are offering is another commission on electoral reform? The Lib Dems won’t have forgotten the Jenkins Commission. Cameron hasn’t offered enough. The Lib Dems are also vehemently opposed to the Conservative economic plans to cut £6 billion in terms of public spending now. They also hate the Conservative attitude to immigration, Europe and defence. And they won’t take lightly the way in which certain of their members were targeted in this election campaign by Lord Ashcroft and his money. That doesn’t mean Clegg won’t do a deal. But it could be a very poor deal if he does it and he may lose his own party in the process.

In fact, Clegg has been handed a poison chalice. Whoever he decides to throw his lot in with he could well be condemned.