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Updated: January 12, 2010 01:56 IST

More than a storm in a teacup

Hasan Suroor
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Gordon Brown's Cabinet colleagues were belated and half-hearted in supporting their boss. File photo: R.V. Moorthy
The Hindu
Gordon Brown's Cabinet colleagues were belated and half-hearted in supporting their boss. File photo: R.V. Moorthy

The attempt to bring down Gordon Brown may have been amateurish, but it did manage to plunge Downing Street into a crisis.

The proverbial cat with nine lives would appear to have found a match in British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his sheer ability to survive political assassinations. Last week, he saw off yet another plot — the third in six months — to unseat him when two former Cabinet Ministers, neither known for their political courage, shot off a letter to the Labour parliamentary party demanding that Mr. Brown seek a vote of confidence to “finally lay the [leadership issue] to rest”.

Surprisingly, the duo struck just when, for the first time in his crisis-prone leadership, Mr. Brown had started to get a measure of the Tories and things for the Labour Party were generally looking good with opinion polls beginning to show signs of tightening after months of consistently grim news.

However, it was not the timing alone that looked odd. Equally surprising were the identity of the “assassins”— the former Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the former Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt. Except that both are protégés of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, with whom Mr. Brown fought a long — and often frustrating — battle before finally toppling him in 2007, they make unlikely rebels. What, then, brought the two together?

Mr. Hoon was said to have been upset that the Prime Minister failed to keep his “promise” to accommodate him in a high-profile European Union job when he dropped him from the Cabinet last summer. Ms. Hewitt also has been sulking since she left the government in a huff after being moved from the Health Department, though she claims that she was offered another job but declined because she wanted to spend more time with her family. She also announced that she would stand down as MP at the next election.

So, it seems that contrary to the plotters’ claims that they had acted in the larger interest of the party in calling for the leadership issue to be settled, their motives were rather more self-serving. The suggestion that they were doing their “puppet master” Mr. Blair’s bidding is too far-fetched considering that two of his closest chums — Alistair Campbell, his former Communications chief, and Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary — are now part of Mr. Brown’s inner circle.

Whatever may have prompted Mr. Hoon and Mr. Hewitt to act the way they did and despite the amateurish nature of their plot (apparently they did not properly consult other fellow-MPs before deciding to wield the dagger) they did manage to give Mr. Brown a real scare and plunge Downing Street into a crisis though, after the storm blew over, he pompously dismissed it as a “storm in a teacup”.

Mr. Brown reportedly got to know of the “plot” minutes before he was to appear in the Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday but the news did not officially break until after the PMQs were over. It intensified when none of Mr. Brown’s Cabinet colleagues rushed to defend him. Even when they eventually did come forward — reportedly after he spent several hours trying to persuade them — they sounded so lukewarm that nobody was left in any doubt that they were offering only token support.

Particularly significant, according to pundits, was Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s belated and half-hearted backing for his boss, given that he is one of the most talked-about leadership contenders. Initially, he went to “ground” as a nervous Downing Street desperately sought to obtain loyalty pledges from senior Ministers. It was only late in the afternoon that he surfaced and then quickly disappeared again after issuing a vague statement which did not explicitly denounce the plot. A pro-Labour newspaper called it the “most equivocal statement” of the day.

The coup may have collapsed but was it really simply a “storm in a teacup”? The answer is no. The collapse of the plot is less an endorsement of Mr. Brown than a reflection of the plotters’ ineptitude. For, the fact is that there still remains deep unease among large sections of Labour MPs and in the wider party ranks about his leadership. As The Economist pointed out, the fact that his Cabinet colleagues were so “lukewarm” in their support when the chips were down is “almost as extraordinary as rebellion”.

Besides, it has emerged that at least six senior Cabinet Ministers had let it be known quietly that they would back a coup in the “right circumstances” but developed cold feet at the last minute. Everyone was apparently waiting for others to jump first before showing their hand. Had, for example, Mr. Miliband come out in support of the Hoon-Hewitt demand for a secret ballot to decide Mr. Brown’s fate, others would have followed and it would have been the end of his leadership. They let the plot fail not because they love Mr. Brown but because they were not sure how things would pan out and did not want to end up on the wrong side.

But the threat has not gone away and another coup attempt in the run-up to the elections is not ruled out if Labour’s poll ratings dip too low in the coming weeks, or there is another policy wobble, or Mr. Brown (as he often does) reneges on the promises he is said to have made to his disgruntled colleagues to buy their loyalty last Wednesday.

The coup plot was reportedly hatched at a south London Indian curry house, Gandhi’s, popular with top Labour politicians.

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