Don’t Write Off Labour Yet

5:22 pm - October 4th 2008

by Unity    

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So what are we to make of Gordon Brown’s new look cabinet?

Well, as I said in the comments under my liveblog of the reshuffle, my first reaction to the return of Mandelson was that the gloves are coming off and things are going to get dirty, really quickly, and there’s plenty more in the reshuffle to reinforce that view.

Liam Byrne’s move to the Cabinet Office, coupled with Justin Forsyth replacing Damian McBride as Brown’s press advisor suggests that Brown will be captaining a much tighter ship in the coming months. Byrne is a detail man with a solid reputation for handling difficult portfolios and intelligent enough to challenge David Willetts for the title of ‘two brains’, while Forsyth is known to be much less chummy with the lobby hacks than his predecessor. Coupled with Mandelson, who’s certain to play a key role in formulating Labour’s election strategy, we can expect to see the government not only staying firmly on message but also cutting out the minor gaffes and factual errors that have bedevilled Brown’s policy announcements in recent months.

Handing responsibility for London over to the uncompromising and sometimes downright unpleasant Tony McNulty is also a significant move, a clear sign that Labour are going to rough up Boris Johnson, the only senior Tory with a real political job. With ‘no time for a novice’ running as Labour’s new meme, we can expect to see Johnson’s mayoral administration put under the microscope for any signs of inexperience or exploitable weakness.

Nick Brown’s return as a Chief Whip is also highly significant both as a symbol of the rapprochement between Brown and Mandelson and because it puts a Brown loyalist in control of parliamentary discipline. It’s clearly another attempt to tighten up discipline and ensure that the parliamentary party stays on message, putting an end to all the talk of divisions.

Beckett’s return as Housing Minister is a bit of a conundrum.

Yes, it brings even more experience into the government – Beckett is another safe pair hands added to a key policy area – but her appointment also smacks a little of compromise, particular as Jon Cruddas was widely tipped for the Housing portfolio. It remains to be seen whether Cruddas will be found a role in government, and whether he’ll even accept such a role, but I suspect that Beckett is there as a safe choice, not just as safe pair of hands but as someone who is ‘safely’ on the [soft] left of the party; well-liked and respected by the grassroots but wholly unthreatening.

And then there’s Hoon’s move to Transport, a portfolio that seem to be the place to park the minister you can’t get rid of but want to have a low profile. Hoon must have some sort of qualities he brings to his but what they are, quite frankly, escapes me. I suspect that there’s a considerable element of truth in the suggestion that Hoon would have shipped off to Europe as a replacement for Mandelson were it not for the fact that this would leave Brown facing another tricky by-election. but our loss is Europe’s gain and, with any luck, Hoon will follow his predecessor, Ruth Kelly, in keeping his head down and staying safely out the way.

I should touch on Mandelson and his day job, the business and enterprise portfolio, where he’ll be working in tandem with Paul (soon to be Lord) Myners, placing both key positions in the department in the House of Lords. The brief here was obvious, bring in the heavyweights and reassure the City and the Business community that Labour will be remaining very much a business friendly party, and judging by the early reaction from organisations like the CBI, Brown can already chalk that one down as ‘mission accomplished’.

It also creates a problem for the opposition parties, both of whom have their core business and enterprise teams based firmly in the Commons and it will be interesting to see whether and how both Cameron and Clegg move to counter Brown’s audacious move, particularly Cameron who needs to decide whether its going to be enough simply to stick to his conference line about character and judgement or whether, with Mandelson’s return, he needs to shore up his business team with a bit more experience and a genuine heavyweight.

The most audacious counter-move open to Cameron would be the return to government of Kenneth Clarke, perhaps as Lord Clarke (of Benson and Hedges?) – a by-election in Clarke’s safe Nottinghamshire seat would present Cameron with few, if any, difficulties – but Clarke’s views on Europe are still very much a divisive factor and there would be the risk, in appointing Clarke, of reigniting divisions within the Tory Party on Europe that Cameron has managed to quell, but not resolve.

However, perhaps the most adroit political manoeuvre of the reshuffle is the creation of a new Ministry of Energy and Climate Charge, not because Ed Miliband is necessarily a rising star of the party, although he does appear to be well thought of, but because by explicitly linking the energy portfolio to the issue of climate change, Brown has created a clear focal point for conflict and division in Tory ranks between Cameron’s ‘Green Tories’ and the climate change sceptics that make up a significant portion of the ‘Continuity IDS’ right-wing of the party.

This new ministry also forces the issue of a reshuffle on Cameron at a time when the future of Conservative Party Chairman, Caroline Spelman, remains unresolved. In truth, Spelman’s lacklustre performance at last week’s Tory Conference could be cited as reason enough to replace Spelman, but with the Commission for Parliamentary Standards’ investigation into her use of parliamentary allowances still hanging over her head, a reshuffle now gives Cameron a significant headache to deal with. If he sacks Spelman outright, sending her to the back benches, or even asks her to resign and take one for good of the party, and Spelman is eventually cleared, then Cameron may be charged with hanging her out to dry to cover his own back. Conversely, if he moves her sideways to another ministerial position, only for her to be subsequently found guilty of having misused her parliamentary allowances to pay her nanny, then Cameron’s judgement will come under serious scrutiny. Either way, Spelman’s failure to take the honourable way out and resign her position when it became clear that her conduct would be investigated has left Cameron with a banana skin in his path that he’ll find difficult to avoid – and all the more so for having seen a sharp political operator like Mandelson return to the Labour fold.

Arguably, this reshuffle could be viewed as an act of desperation, and that may conceivable prove to be the case – but necessity, not to mention desperation, is sometimes the mother of invention and there are days when the ‘hail mary’ pass comes off.

Gordon Brown is not the first leader to see his best laid plans go awry only for forced moves driven by necessity and desperation to come unexpectedly to the rescue.

During the 1986 World Cup Finals, in Mexico, Sir Bobby Robson went into England’s final group stage match with Poland staring an ignominious exit from the tournament and and almost certain p45 squarely in the face. England had made an appalling start to the tournament, losing their opening game to Portugal 1-0 and then scraping their to an embarrassing 0-0 draw with Morocco in a game that saw the heart ripped out of Robson’s plans and England’s midfield. England Captain Bryan Robson lasted a mere four minutes before being forced out of the game and the tournament by a dislocated shoulder, and shortly before half time, Robson partner in midfield, Ray Wilkins, made an even more desperate exit, having earned the first and only red card of his playing career.

With his World Cup campaign in tatters, Robson made his last throw of the dice, brought in Peter Beardsley in place of Mark Hateley up front and, following a hat-trick by Gary Lineker in a 3-0 over Poland, not only hung on to his job but went on, in 1990, to become the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsay and a genuinely revered figure in the footballing world.

Whether Mandelson proves to Brown’s Peter Beardsley or the final desperate move of a party on its way to electoral oblivion remains to be seen, but if history tells us anything its that we shouldn’t write off Labour yet – if nothing else we can be sure that with Mandelson scheming behind the scenes, the government will not be going down without putting up a hell of a fight.

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'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments

1. Mike Killingworth

Well, that’s a very positive spin, Unity.

Looked at in another way, we have the return of a twice-disgraced minister and several other re-treads. Fleet Street, to say nothing of Guido and Dale, will lavish energy on raking over everything Mandy does or doesn’t do. They may even think the political benefits of losing libel suits are worth the financial cost. And consider a sentence like “convicted felon O.J. Simpson managed to convince a jury that he didn’t murder his wife – but no one else has ever been brought to trial for that murder”. Variations on that theme, in respect of Mandy, will be with us day in and day out.

Possibly more serious is the implication that there are no more rising stars who merited promotion. Retreads suggest exhaustion, and the reality is that after 11 years, governments are exhausted.

Well, that’s a very positive spin, Unity.

Mmm… is it? I see it more a reflection on the strategic intent behind the reshuffle…

…whether that can be executed successfully or whether it all falls apart due to Mandelson’s somewhat ‘colourful’ history, remains to be seen.

Unless Brown and Labour can start making the public understand that Cameron has changed nothing in the Tory party, and underneath they are still the same right wing, give to the rich party that they have always been ,then Labour are doomed to defeat.

People keep saying Cameron is the Tory version of Tony Blair. He is not, He is the Tory party’s G W Bush.

We are back to the 80’s, when the Labour party and the Liberal Dems split the anti Tory vote.

>>”Unless…then Labour are doomed to defeat. ”

Labour are doomed anyway. If they show that Cameron hasn’t really changed the Tories, then we have New Labour… sitting in exactly the same place. And the public don’t want them.

Brown’s only chance was to go a little left, and he didn’t. He won’t give up on New Labour even though it’s thoroughly, utterly dead, and he’ll get massacred at the next election because of it.

(Also: Beckett in charge of housing?! Oh dear God.)

The comments to Derek Draper’s post on Cif are absolutely priceless, and show quite nicely the mood in the country:

Just two points…

You overlook the promotion of your own MP – the Mighty Spellar – in a return to Government.

And Steve Hodge also played a major part in ensuring Robson’s team progressed in Mexico, finally getting a start against Poland (as the hapless Bryan Robson owned up to being injured)… just like David Platt did 4 years later, although Gazza got all the plaudits for weeping. But of course Hodge and Platt played for Aston Villa, not the media darlings Tottenham Hotspur. This victimisation may continue tomorrow if the brilliant Ashley Young is overlooked for David Bentley. Now, what was that you were saying…

Steve Hodge came in for the suspended Ray Wilkins after the Portugal game in 86 as I remember. Wilkins (who was at Milan at the time) tells the story that he got sent off for the only time in his career by throwing the ball at the ref deliberately because he didn’t want to hurt his reputation in Italy by playing badly in the thin air of Mexico and was actually doing the team a favour (he’s also said that he did it because he wanted a holiday after a long season).

I guess professionall footballers are the masters at getting their excuses in, so perhaps he is the prototype for Mandleson.

Will Mandy start playing dirty and abusing the referee (media)? You betcha. Will the change in dynamic also shift the momentum in the polls? That remains to be seen.

Ah yes – Mandy and Myners.

A man who lied on his mortgage application teamed up with a director of the hedge fund with the largest short position in B&B.

Perfect. I predict public dancing in the streets.

Energy and climate change?

At least Hutton seemed to understand that we are running at the limits of energy capacity and that unless we get building PDQ there’ll be a big problem.

But of course this reshuffle has NOTHING to do with the better running of government, has it?

And already we have this:

He just can’t help lying, can he?

It will end in tears, but how wonderful it will be to watch!

Hmm. In a trustworthiness match between Mandelson and Finkelstein, I’d trust either to the extent to which I can throw them across the Bristol Channel. Which is, regrettably, not very far.

Maybe, but then Gordon “moral compass” Brown is making only one of them a minister of the crown and peer of the realm.

Anonymous shafting of anyone who gets in the way will now be done competently.

Should be interesting.

My biggest concern is that the control freakery tendency may have been strengthened even more.


Mandleson may not be well liked but he is not afraid of difficult and unpopular work at a time when there is plenty of both to be done.

The failure of vision is at housing.

The economy is on the edge of the abyss and housing is absolutely central to the problem. Yet Housing still doesn’t get a proper cabinet member – just a “safe pair of hands”.

And what a safe pair of hands. Margaret Beckett fouled up the transition to single farm payments so badly that the EU levied fines that ran to the hundreds of millions of pounds. She then got promoted just in time to mishandle the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that did so much to entrench Hizbollah.

What will she do for an encore?

13. dreamingspire

George V: “Margaret Beckett fouled up the transition to single farm payments so badly that the EU levied fines that ran to the hundreds of millions of pounds.”
You need to ask why Defra fouled it up before you ask whether Margaret Beckett could have stopped them. Similarly ask why DfT cocks up so much (particularly rail strategy recently) before asking whether Ruth Kelly and Tom Harris could have stopped them. Sorting out govt depts needs action from the top to broker a deal with the Civil Service, and putting in Ministers tasked with keeping the lid on things just makes them worse. Brown is showing that those who say he can only concentrate on one thing at a time are right.

14. Mike Killingworth

[13] Brown is showing that those who say he can only concentrate on one thing at a time are right – may well be so, and if it is, then – according to the Barack Obama theory of leadership – he’s been overpromoted.

dreamingspire, I agree whole-heartedly but tradition has it that in this country we blame ministers not civil servants. The civil serants do the work, ministers simply set the agenda and make sure their departments do not screw up. Beckett’s last two jobs suggest that she is no good at either.

This is a disastrous reshuffle but it is hard to see that Gordon had many alternatives given the absence of any coherent ideological (rather than personal) challenge from within thbe party.

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