Of course the Tory commentators make the most of what they can rake up. But for now they can rake up a lot.
On 11 January Bruce Anderson wrote in The Independent: “All of Brown’s Cabinet now want him to lose the next election... If the Labour Cabinet could decide the outcome of the election in a secret ballot, there would be an overwhelming vote for a Cameron-led minority government, which they would hope to overthrow after they had sorted themselves out”.
The attempt by ex-ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt on 6 January at a palace coup within the Labour Party left both Gordon Brown and his ultra-Blairite enemies weaker. The winner was even great disarray at the top of New Labour.
A credible attempt at a coup would have got a sizeable number of MPs signed up before going public, and would have a named alternative leader.
But Hewitt is leaving politics at the general election — to turn to her very lucrative company directorships. Hoon is at present still on course to stand again for Parliament, but may want out too. He wanted the EU foreign minister job, but got nowhere near it. He had serious trouble in the MPs’ expenses scandal. After he resigned as a minister in June 2009, the Telegraph wrote: “Mr Hoon may well now be tempted to leave Parliament at the next election. Along with his wife, Mr Hoon is thought to have amassed a sizeable property portfolio worth more than £1.7 million”.
It looks as if the ultra-Blairites chose Hoon and Hewitt to front the coup because, politically, those two had nothing to lose.
David Miliband had something to lose, and lost it. He waited seven hours before commenting on Hoon and Hewitt (lame official excuse: his press officer was away; in the meantime his brother, also a minister, the more “Brownite” Ed Miliband, had said desperately that he was sure that David Miliband backed Brown) and then came out with the weakest repudiation possible.
Brown is pretty certain to stay leader until the General Election, and David Miliband is politically damaged. But demoralisation in the New Labour elite is so acute that on 10 May the Blairite Peter Watt — general secretary of the Labour Party until November 2007, when he resigned over dodgy donations, and still, so he says, a Labour supporter — was in the right-wing Mail on Sunday with the first part of a serialisation of a new book entitled, in Mail-speak rather than Blair-speak: “My Story Of Betrayal And Cowardice At The Heart Of New Labour”.
Generally parliamentary political parties pull together in the run-up to a general election, shutting away differences. After the famous resignation from the Labour government in April 1951 by Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson, and John Freeman, over prescription charges and military spending — a resignation that would in hindsight be seen to have started of “Labour’s high tide” in terms of ferment in the local Labour parties — the rebels kept quiet through the subsequent Labour Party conference and until after the September 1951 election.
But the New Labour elite’s disarray has gone beyond that. Watt tells the Mail that “Brownite” minister Douglas Alexander said: “You’d imagine that after ten years... complaining about Tony [Blair], we would have some idea of what we are going to do, but we don’t seem to have any policies”.
“Blairite”, “Brownite” — what’s the difference in policy? For now the Blairites are angry about what the media has called Brown’s “class war” demagogy — the loose talk about “Labour investment versus Tory cuts”, the token taxes on the rich, the jibes at Tory toffs. All those years spent wooing the City, and now he does this! The ultra-Blairites are more angry about it than the City toffs themselves.
According to Fraser Nelson, editor of the Tory weekly The Spectator, “Mandelson and Darling have still not forgiven [Brown] for his reckless Budget, ramping up debt”.
A Tory election victory now seems more likely than ever. If the unions and labour movement activists want a serious fight against the Tories, they will have to call the New Labour elite to account and move to get a functioning Labour Party again.