Could Rentoul be right – that the unthinkable is now thinkable?
In the ongoing turbulence over the Labour succession the main developments over the weekend have been a hint by the former Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, that he might run for the job and an extraordinary piece by John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday suggesting that Gordon Brown could be sacked.
The Milburn move came in a TV interview in which he repeatedly refused to rule himself out of the the next leadership election – comments being seen by Team Brown as deliberately provocative. According to the Telegraph “Supporters of the Chancellor said last night that Mr Milburn’s intervention appeared to be timed deliberately to overshadow Mr Brown’s visit to Mozambique today.”
For anybody wanting to update themselves with how the world looks from Camp Blair Rentoul’s weekly column in the IoS is a must. For the writer, the Prime Minister’s biographer and occasional contributor to PB.C, often has good insights on what is going on, particularly in relation to the Tony-Gordon saga.
And in his latest column he analyses the reasons behind Brown’s apparent change of position on the Turner pension report and raises issues which are hardly being touched on elsewhere. “…It has suddenly become thinkable again that Blair might sack Brown, but only if the Chancellor gave him an excuse to do so. He would have to obstruct the Prime Minister on an issue where he was on the wrong side of public opinion. Last week’s tactical retreat by the Chancellor on pensions was interesting, therefore. On Tuesday he said he agreed with “90 to 95 per cent” of the Adair Turner report on pensions, which Blair supports rather more wholeheartedly. It was a reluctant bow to brute prime-ministerial power. All the demands from Brown supporters, noisily amplified by the media, that Blair should “set a date” for his departure are therefore so much sound and fury signifying not so much nothing as weakness. Not least because there is no reason of substance why Blair should…”
What’s interesting is that Rentoul has raised the issue at all and he must, surely, have had some steer from Downing Street. Maybe this is just a warning shot to remind Team Brown about the limits of what they can do.
And in the unlikely event of Blair being pushed into this situation would the Chancellor’s prospect of getting the top job be enhanced? The answer is almost certainly not. Brown needs a quiet transition and Blair seems to hold all the cards.
There is a big danger, as Mrs. Thatcher found out in the final year of her premiership, of making the position of a Chancellor untenable. It did not take too long after Nigel Lawson resigned for Mrs. Thatcher to have to go herself.
Meanwhile another week goes by, Tony is still there and I’m a little bit nearer to winning my four figure bet that he will survive until the end of next year. The latest price is 2.75/1.
Yes there are problems ahead. A bad performance in the local elections on May 4th might provide a spring-board but in what form is a move against him going to take?
The great factor under-pinning the Blair position is that the Cameron Tory surge has faltered. If a General Election was held tomorrow Labour would almost certainly be returned albeit with a reduced majority. It is when MPs are scared of losing their seats that a leader’s position can be precarious.