Would this be the key question as to What Happens Next?
Letâ€™s suppose that the General Election produces the hung parliament the polls and betting markets are currently indicating is the likeliest outcome. What happens next is partly the consequence of the numbers game – how many MPâ€™s and votes each party won – but also how the various players react to events and to each other.
In politics, as allegedly elsewhere, possession is nine-tenths of the law and Gordon Brown is the man in possession. The initiative would in the first instance be with him to form a government if he tried to do so, as it was with Heath in 1974.
There are several key groups that heâ€™d need the support of: his cabinet, the PLP and (probably) the Lib Dems. If he couldnâ€™t form a viable government – if his senior colleagues told him it was time to go – he probably wouldnâ€™t have any option but to do so, not least because that would compromise support elsewhere. Likewise with the PLP. If Labour win most seats, a Brown government might survive on a Lib Dem abstention on the Queenâ€™s Speech but otherwise would probably need either their active support or that of several minor parties: the veto applies there too.
Thereâ€™s been talk that the Lib Dems might prop up Labour if they were to change their leader. How realistic is that?
Firstly, Cleggâ€™s been pretty clear that the Lib Dems will regard votes won as a greater mandate than seats in the Commons. Thatâ€™s inevitably going to cause problems if Labour tries to stay as if itâ€™s a hung parliament, theyâ€™ll almost certainly have won fewer votes than the Tories (if not, theyâ€™ll be very close to an overall majority and there probably wouldnâ€™t be an alternative viable government available). That goes for any other Labour leader as much as for Brown.
Secondly, there are party mechanisms to go through and rules to abide by. Brown canâ€™t simply be forced out as party leader – Labourâ€™s rules make that nigh-on impossible – so heâ€™d have to be persuaded / forced to stand down, or left in place as party leader while one of his colleagues tried to form a government, a situation close to unworkable.
To some extent, rules can be bent or ignored if the practicalities make it reasonable to do so (eg if the rest of the cabinet were close to unanimous in recommending an alternative) but only with large amounts of goodwill on all sides – goodwill that may not be forthcoming.
Thirdly, even if Brown is somehow prised out of No 10 against his will, what happens to him then? This seems to me to be the big unanswered question. Especially if heâ€™s still party leader but even if heâ€™s not, he has the potential to make life intolerable for his successor in a way that even Heath or Thatcher never did simply because of the parliamentary arithmetic. Would he be offered and would he accept a place in the cabinet for example? The arguments are finely balanced either way. If he chooses to walk away, no problem; if he chooses to stay and fight, major problem.
Stubborn inertia has been a favoured tactic of Gordon Brown throughout his career and has generally served him well, preventing others from challenging him by making it too painful to do so. I wouldnâ€™t be at all surprised to see him go down that road again, knowing that to do so will force the Lib Dems to choose between keeping him in office and allowing a Tory government to form, assuming the Lib Dems finish comfortably third in seats. Stubborn inertia may yet again be his best, and favoured, option.