Would it be foolish to topple Brown now?
I’ve had a number of conversations about the pending Fall of Brown with a wide variety of political types over the last week or two, and so from the outset I’d like to acknowledge that some of the genesis of this article belongs to them as much as to my own musing.*
David Herdson’s excellent article last week asked whether the election ‘campaign’ for Speaker might be just enough to deter the Labour Party from seeking to run a parallel election for Leader (assuming they harbour the desire to topple Gordon Brown in the wake of disastrous European and Local election results). I think there is much sense to that idea, but I am concerned that sense is not the dominant force in the tumult of overthrowing a sitting Prime Minister.
Mike has written that the Labour Party is polling somewhat better than Gordon Brown personally. It will be interesting to see (should it occur) how the Labour Party would fare (in this Parliament) if they chose to face Cameron with a different Leader. Certainly every Conservative I speak to thinks that loss of the current PM would be a set-back to their plans for the General Election. In line with the old chessplayers’ maxim that you should always do what your opponent least wants you to do, it would seem that there is some sense to using the June 2009 election results as a means to replace Brown.
But I’m not sure that such a revolution in the PLP would be optimal for their chances of holding onto power. Any new Labour leader would instantly be under pressure to call a General Election, and refusing to do so would likely deflate the ‘honeymoon’ that most political leaders get to enjoy in their first month or two in role. To avoid this problem, there are only two options.
Firstly, a new leader could simply assent to a snap General Election, knowing that unless they got extremely lucky, they would within weeks make history as the PM with the shortest term in history. Whilst it would be nice to be remembered for something, I suspect that actively assenting to calling an optional election within weeks of moving into Number 10 would prove a little beyond the strength of all but the least ambitious candidate.
So what is the other option? I think it is to accede to the office of Prime Minister, but without the pressure of having to make that decision at all. If Brown was toppled in, say, February or March of next year then the calls for a snap election would not be as intense, given that the media, the public, and the Opposition would recognise that Parliament was almost at its end anyhow.
A new Prime Minister would be able to put the matter to rest by immediately saying that the election was scheduled for May as planned, and would have the chance to make new policy without the pressure of making the decision that Brown flunked in October 2007. With that freedom, and the chance of a reasonable honeymoon, a Labour PM would have the best chance possible of preventing a Conservative overall majority.
So should Labour overthrow Brown after the June 2009 election results are confirmed? I would suggest not. A drawn out contest (perhaps running up to Party Conference in September) would not do the party too much good, and a new leader would have to sustain a long honeymoon to make it to the Spring. By leaving Brown in post until February or March 2010, I’d suggest a new leader would prove much more successful in the subsequent General Election.
*If those concerned would like credit, they can contact me, but as several conversations were held under Chatham House Rules, I have taken the path of anonymous credit in the first instance. I would have waited to contact them, but it seems that if Alan Johnson or David Milliband have their wicked way, this might be the last weekend to write this article, so the idea must be released forthwith.