The “Brown going” debate

The “Brown going” debate

Who’s got this right? Herdson or Peter the Punter

Earlier this week, I had an e-mail exchange with Peter the Punter following a bet we made a week last Monday as to whether Gordon Brown would go within the week, where we both set out our thoughts on Brown’s chances of survival through to next May.

The first e-mail is from me in response to a question that Peter asked – whether Labour would sleepwalk to a sub-200 seat total, allowing Brown to lead the party unchallenged through to the election. The second is Peter’s reply. Peter suggested that I publish them and I’ve done that as hopefully they give two slightly contrasting views on how Labour might act in the coming months. I’ve edited them as little as possible. The references to ‘you’ and ‘your’ in Peter’s at times means the Conservatives – I’m not standing!

David Herdson’s email

Sent: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 10:46 PM
Subject: Re: Brown’s still there

Hello Peter,

Are Labour going to sleepwalk to sub-200 seats? I’m not sure sleepwalk’s quite the right analogy. I’d put it more like a traveller who took a wrong turning at a crossroads some time ago, knows that, knows roughly where they want to be but has passed two or three turns which headed towards the right road because they looked a bit tricky in the hope that the one that they’re on leads to somewhere similar. They’re now wondering whether that was the right thing to do, aware that the last turning was some time ago and there might not now be another one. There’s no painless option but equally it’s not obvious which option is least worst and in that situation, making no positive decision and hoping for the best is probably what’s likely to happen.

However, I agree with you that if something does happen, it will do so quickly and probably in response to something we don’t know (much?) about yet. The trick will be identifying the issue quickly enough. A cabinet resignation could do it if it comes from one of the senior players (Straw, Harman, Darling, Balls; possibly D Miliband or Johnson), who’s prepared to put the boot in. If they did that, they’d be sacrificing their own career but might clear the way for someone else. I’m not sure why any of them would resign in that way. Brown’s a tactician and would probably compromise on any particular issue if push came to shove. They’ve served under him for over two years now so putting it down to a particular style of leadership or electoral prospects doesn’t look credible, especially after they failed to follow up on Purnell’s resignation.

I think Nick gives us a good indication of PLP thinking and mood. There’s undoubtedly discontent and loyalty to the government’s ideas and policies is wearing thin if the MPs think they’re bad ones (which I regard as a very positive development), but that’s not the same as demanding the PM’s head. I think there’s almost a kind of pride that Labour doesn’t do that sort of thing.

A further problem is that the outcome of a leadership crisis is highly uncertain. Would any of the alternatives make things better? Indeed, do all the candidates want the job pre-election? How would Brown react? How would Brownites react? How would candidates passed over react? Would an election/nomination process spark an uncontrollable fight for ideas and the party’s soul making a coherent election manifesto or campaign impossible? They’re tough questions and ones I don’t have an answer to.

Perhaps strangely, I don’t honestly think that all that many MPs are primarily concerned about their own future. Of the 350 or so Labour MPs, about half will be confident that their seat will stay Labour anyway, some of the rest will be retiring, some in marginals will have accepted that they’re on the way out but for a miracle that they don’t really expect, still others will believe that forcing a change is worse than continuing with Brown, a few will be hard-core Brownites who genuinely believe that he’s the best choice, some will put their faith in the nascent economic recovery and others won’t believe the polls represent what will actually happen come election day. These groups will of course overlap but it still won’t leave all that many – perhaps not enough – to force change about even if the opportunity comes.

Another complicating factor is that having too many potential PMs is almost as bad as too few and Labour’s almost in both camps at once: there are a lot of possibles by historic standards but they’re all flawed. If we were in the same situation as we were with Blair/Brown, the pressure would be far greater on Gordon as MPs would know exactly what they would be getting.

Finally, there’s the practicalities: the timetable’s tricky for a full leadership election, with the Queen’s Speech, PBR, Christmas and the Budget all providing significant though not insuperable barriers to navigate. There is a small window early in 2010 but that’s all. Were there to be a vacancy, it’s much more likely to be left to the cabinet and NEC to sort things for themselves and hope that the party and public accept whatever they come up with – but a Magic Circle coronation is even less democratic than Brown’s close to unanimous proclamation.

I could be completely wrong on this (and if I am, I’ll need to be extremely nimble to avoid a nasty loss) but it’s the divergence in expectations and assessments of probabilities which gives us the betting markets and long may they continue!

Actually, just as an aside, I think that even with Brown, they may end up with more than 200 seats. The ‘Tory cuts’ message will find quite a lot of receptive ears because while the details will be disputed, the fundamental message won’t be: there will have to be cuts (whoever wins) and I’d expect Cameron to try to bag as big a mandate as he can on that score to use as capital for 2014.

Warm regards,


Peter the Punter’s response

Sent: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 11:38:17 GMT Daylight Time
Subject: Re: Brown’s still there

Thanks David. Very interesting.

Your analogy is better than mine. Yes, it reminds me of once getting lost on a walk through mountains in Greece. Eventually we decided to retrace our steps as that was the only guaranteed way to avoid dying. We got back in the small hours of the morning with the whole village and police out searching for us. They all said we did the right thing though, i.e. the safe thing. Not sure Labour are as wise though.

Since you wrote we have had the benefit of three polls. They haven’t affected the betting markets as much as one might have expected. Perhaps punters are still unsure about the Gordon Defenestration issue. Now that I have had time to reflect on what they mean, I think they show that there is a rump of about 55% or so of the electorate that won’t vote Tory in just about any circumstances. The 40/45% you have now is probably a ceiling. It’s a nice ceiling of course, and I don’t expect you to drop back much, if any, at a GE. It’s looking nailed on an overall majority now, somewhere in the 50 to 100 region.

The rump vote seems to me to be switching between Labour and Others, principally the Lib Dems. It seems to me therefore that they have most to fear from a change of Labour Leader. Tories have nothing to fear because, as you rightly point out, there is simply nobody of sufficient calibre to galvanise Labour now. If they stay with Brown, I think they will drop to about 180 seats or less. The LDs will do well. If they change however, the Lab/LD switchers may vote Labour in sufficient numbers to save 20 to 30 seats, and the LDs will be squeezed, possibly down to about 40.

So, you could back a Brown exit AND buy LD seats and you have a nice hedge! 🙂 Maybe ….

I suspect they will stick with Gord but if they don’t, I expect decapitation to come quickly. I don’t believe any of this stuff about Labour Party procedure making the timetable impossible. There are plenty of ways to get rid of him if the will is there. The Parliamentary timetable is a bit more awkward because the Party would not want to plunge the country into chaos. (It would look bad!) I understand that early 2010 would work. I don’t expect it, but if it does happen I shall be about £4k better off. And I don’t expect there will be any forewarning.

Well those are my thoughts. Perhaps we should publish this exchange on PB. Might make an entertaining thread piece!

Warm regards


So there we are. Two views, similar in outlook but not identical. Having re-read it, I probably over-emphasise the importance of the timetable in my e-mail. That mattered with Blair-Brown as it was an orderly transition and Brown was Chancellor. Removing Brown wouldn’t have the same planning and assuming he’s not directly involved, Darling could get on with the PBR or Budget whatever else is happening around him.

This is no doubt a discussion that will run for months (or until a denouement) and as Peter points out, one that links to several betting markets. Good luck.

David Herdson

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