3 MAY 2008, Page 10

Labour politicians are already preparing for opposition. The race to succeed Gordon is on

Over lunch about a year ago, I tried to tease out the intentions of someone tipped as a possible successor to Gordon Brown. He was feigning optimism and loyalty to the anointed leader-inwaiting, so I advanced some hypothetical scenarios involving various MPs being run over by buses. So would he maybe...

‘Me? God, no,’ he replied, cutting me off. ‘Forget it. As soon as this party gets into opposition then — boof.’ He mimed an explosion with his hands. ‘Trust me. The queue to be Labour’s William Hague will not be a long one.’ Here were two striking assumptions: that Mr Brown was certain to lose, and that the Labour coalition would fast unravel. This, it must be said, is the minority view. Until quite recently, most Labour MPs believed they would defeat David Cameron — but even now, those who grudgingly concede the possibility of defeat think that Labour’s spell in opposition would be short-lived. The talk is of Mr Cameron being a 21st-century version of Edward Heath, and of Labour taking a ‘short bath’ — a refreshing dip on the opposition benches followed by a return to business as usual and another decade or so of progressive governance.

Although it doesn’t do to admit it, Mr Brown’s departure in the reasonably foreseeable future has always been on the cards. Soon after he entered No. 10, the Prime Minister’s aides would say privately that he would fight just one election. Even he recognised he could not plausibly promise to lead Britain to the end of the next decade. If the Brown formula succeeded then Ed Balls, his protégé and author of his better ideas, would have a reasonable claim to succeed him. ‘Look at the sheer pace of what Ed’s doing, tearing up A-levels with minimal consultation,’ says one Cabinet minister. ‘This has obviously been planned for years.’ What was not planned was the fastest opinion poll collapse suffered by any prime minister since Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich. The needle of probability in British politics — which seldom points to any one outcome for more than a few weeks — is currently veering towards a Labour defeat and a vacancy for leader of the opposition.

So the smarter Labour MPs are thinking through their options: the game plan is to keep a respectable but not indecent distance from the slow-motion car crash which is the Labour government. But what then?

Those who support the ‘short bath for Labour’ theory argue that Mr Cameron is just another Tory charlatan who will be exposed soon after entering office. The British are a fair-minded bunch of people, they reason, who, after a decade of Labour, may want to let the other chaps have a go. But they expect Mr Cameron will win only by default in an election that is a referendum on Labour rather than an endorsement of the Tories, and be conspicuously unready for government. Prime Minister Cameron — this line of reasoning continues — would become overwhelmed by events and quickly exit stage right.

Even Labour MPs who credit the Tory leader with enough appeal to win the next election seem genuinely to expect him to be useless in government. To my mind, this recalls the fatal underestimation of Mr Cameron by the Brownites when he won the party leadership in 2005. But this is, for better or worse, the state of most Labour thinking. One MP put it to me that if Neil Kinnock had triumphed in the 1992 election, the Tories would almost certainly have been back after a term because Labour was, at that point, ready to exploit the public’s dissatisfaction with the Tories after 13 years of government, but still unready to govern. The parallel criticism, he said, applies to Mr Cameron now.

Perhaps the least plausible of all post-Gordon Labour theories is that the party would, in opposition, realise how daft it had been to jettison the Blair formula of market-based reforms on public services. After the Tories grapple unsuccessfully with this agenda — or so it is argued — Labour would promise, at last, to deliver it properly at a 2015 election. The biggest flaw in their theory is that there will scarcely be enough Blairites to fill a taxi, far less a shadow Cabinet, after the next election. A Cameron majority can only happen in the first place if a third of Labour MPs lose their seats — a cull of the moderates who were swept to power in the 1997 landslide.

Labour’s Left will, by contrast, be largely intact and ready for mischief. And when they come to choose a leader, it will be decided by Labour’s electoral college system which gives a third of votes to MPs, a third to party members and a third to the unions. Such a formula bodes ill for anyone regarded as a neo-Blairite, and in effect eliminates the chances of a Blairite restoration. The ele ments of the Labour party which Mr Blair could not tame are going to be proportionately stronger after defeat.

Lord Desai remarked last week that Gordon Brown was ‘put on earth to remind people how good Tony Blair was’. One could argue that Mr Blair’s purpose on this planet was to make us forget how fractious the Labour party really is. Throughout its history it has been the party of splits and the Conservatives have been the party of discipline and electoral success. The Blair era was therefore the anomaly in Labour’s 115-year history, where this polarity was reversed. In his absence, Labour’s tribal conflicts are reemerging and re-asserting themselves.

The parliamentary rebellion on the 10p tax and the wave of strikes offer a taste of the trouble to come. There are the Old Labour beasts, who naively thought Mr Brown would expunge the private sector and private sector practices entirely from public services. The orphaned Blairites apply an intellectual critique but lack numbers to make much of an impression. The 100-odd Labour MPs facing redundancy are generally the most biddable. So the 250-odd Labour MPs who would remain after a Cameron victory would be, almost by definition, an unruly lot.

So who would try to lead them? David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has the most support in the Cabinet at present, mainly thanks to suspicion that Mr Balls is already on manoeuvres. The Schools Secretary’s policies, colleagues argue, are aimed not at voters but Labour’s selectorate (think of his draconian approach to the national school admissions policy, a tactic designed to gladden the hearts of the Labour Left). Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary and Jack Straw, Justice Secretary, are mentioned as ‘unity candidates’ by those who fear civil war. James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is keeping quiet enough to be considered should the frontrunners destroy each other before the race begins.

Precisely 11 years ago this week, six candidates entered the Tory leadership race in what most outsiders regarded as a doomed mission. Mr Hague says he didn’t fully grasp the hopelessness of his task until four years later. So who will be Labour’s answer to the William Hague of 1997? I suspect my luncheon partner was wrong, and that the queue to succeed Gordon Brown will be strikingly long. And for those with an eye to see it, the jostling has already begun.