Thursday, December 28, 2006

A good double-act needs good timing

There’s an interview in today’s Times with Labour deputy leader wannabe Alan Johnson. Talk turns to the prospect of Gordon Brown being unopposed for the position of leader:

“Some Labour figures worry that the Chancellor would be hampered by having to wait around while the party picks his deputy from a big field. But Mr Johnson said that Mr Brown could assume the leadership after the result of the deputy contest.”

This doesn’t convince me. Brown is currently handicapped by the need to wait out Tony Blair’s final months, unable to grab Labour’s agenda and drive it the way he wants to go – and all the while the Tories are concentrating their fire on him rather than on the lame duck in No. 10.

This would be even worse in the context of a leadership coronation at the same time as an election for the deputy post. Any lingering doubt about Brown’s succession would have been dispelled once nominations close, and for him to have to sit out, say, two months as leader-elect while the deputy hustings go up and down the country would rob him of momentum terribly at a crucial time.

The alternative would be for Brown to become leader immediately on close of nominations. This would have the virtue of avoiding a period of dead time leadership-wise, but would involve a different downside. He would be able to make all sorts of policy announcements as desired, but his ability to carry out a full government reshuffle would be sapped by the undecided deputy contest. Also, he would lose control of a key part of the agenda - namely, how deputy votes are cast and (probably more importantly) how they are sought. The election for the deputy won’t be meaningless, and if the leadership is already decided, a lot of media attention will shift there.

A number of key cabinet ministers, plus other runners, will be making speeches about their own vision for the party, and this will almost inevitably detract from whatever Brown is doing in the meantime. There will be a temptation to see whatever they say – publically to the wider membership and behind closed (yet leaky) doors to their parliamentary colleagues – as a contrast or even a challenge to Brown.

And there’s another problem. However the timing might work, it would be awkward for the deputy to have a popular party mandate while the leader lacked one. It’s clear that Brown would win any contested leadership election, but that abstract counterfactual won’t cut much ice.

True, a mandate from the members didn’t help Iain Duncan Smith; the lack of one didn’t harm Michael Howard. But the fact of an elected deputy – even one willing to be personally loyal – might undermine the position of an unopposed leader.

So Brown – and the party as a whole – could well benefit from a leadership contest. But it remains to be seen whether the left can unite to nominate a kamikaze candidate.

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