What role does John Hutton have yet to play?
It was Michael Heseltine who famously remarked on his own failed bid to become Prime Minister that “He who wields the knife will never wear the crown”. This oft-repeated dictum has since played its part in preventing leadership coups, by tempering the ambition of those who would otherwise seek to overthrown their leader.
This week saw fevered speculation, first Jack Straw posing for photos in the Sunday Papers, then Harriet Harman denying she had said ‘this is my time’, then David Miliband writing that article for the Guardian and holding both a press conference and radio interview which centred on his plans to topple Brown or lack thereof. These three, along with Alan Johnson, are now the frontrunners for any challenge to the PM – the only likely candidates, with the stature and name-recognition from their Cabinet roles, who are considered potential Premiers.
And yet, even with Gordon Brown away on holiday (or perhaps for that very reason) no overt strike was launched. None of them seemed prepared to wield the knife, all offered tepid support of the PM and laughed off claims that they were seeking to replace him. What struck me this week was that unless Brown steps down of his own volition, an executioner will be required and it will not be one of the four ‘candidates’ who want only to pick up the crown once the head falls from the block.
Who might play this role? It would need to be a current Cabinet minister – any other challenger would be dismissed, even (I suspect) former ‘big beasts’ such as Milburn or Charles Clarke. An independently-minded, politically-astute politician, not too scared of standing up to the PM’s legendary fits of rage.
It will be none of the Brownite faction (Balls, Cooper, Ed Miliband, Alexander, Woodward), and will not be one of the young Turks (Purnell, Burnham, Flint). Hoon has reportedly been offered Peter Mandelson’s European Commissioner Role for his loyalty; Benn, Hain, Blears, Ruth Kelly and Des Browne are too weak; Darling and Smith owe their careers to Brown’s patronage. Other than John Denham, who perhaps lacks the stature, there is only one man I could see successfully wielding the knife, and that is the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise, and Regulatory Reform: John Hutton.
Hutton is a Cabinet member I actually respect a great deal. Grammar School and Oxford-educated, he was brought into the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and spent two years at Work and Pensions. An arch-Blairite, he was one of few in that faction to be invited to remain in the Cabinet, and it is testament to his political nouse that he survived as difficult a department as the DWP so unscathed.
He is considered highly competant by those who have worked with him, and is certainly not scared to speak his mind, or to stand up to Gordon Brown on occasion. His majority in Barrow & Furness has fallen from 14,497 in 1997 to 6,037 in 2005 – safe if fortunes improve a little, but doomed if nothing changes. If he really was the poet who penned the ‘Man on the Stair’ ditty (with a little help from William Hughes Mearns), suffice it to say his loyalty to Brown is not absolute.
Whilst all the prospective candidates were rushing out policy (Purnell on benefit-system reform, Harman on equality, Miliband’s tour of Britain) John Hutton scored a good win this week, by announcing that waiting staff would no longer see their tips used by their company to top them up to minimum wage – rather minimum would be paid, and tips would be given in full to staff. This has been welcomed by the media, by the public, and most importantly by the Trades Unions who are bankrolling Labour (around 90% of the party’s income).
Hutton has a platform, he is no Brownite, he has never expressed leadership ambitions for himself, he is popular with the paymasters at the moment, and most importantly is one of few in the Cabinet not afraid to face up to the PM. If the likely successor is to be Harman, David Miliband, or Jack Straw, they will need a knife-wielder – who more appropriate than the one of the last true Blairites in government?
In other news: PoliticalBetting has picked up a couple of awards from The Witangemot Club. PB.com was voted “Best Election Coverage / Polling Blog” and “Best Dicussion / Community”. As if either of those were even in doubt…!