Eric Joyce MP: Failed coup ends leadership debate

AT LUNCHTIME on Wednesday, TV news editors had presenters posted at motorway junctions and beauty spots ready for the obvious top news item of the day: Britain's cold snap.

Meanwhile, down the news agenda, Westminster was witnessing what commentators agreed was one of Gordon Brown's best performances at his weekly Prime Minister's Question Time. But then, as David Cameron struggled to open the long election campaign, Westminster began to buzz at the rumour that two former Labour cabinet ministers were about to mount an attempt to remove their leader.

As the whole country now knows, while PMQs drew to a conclusion, two former senior cabinet ministers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, issued a direct challenge to their party leader in the form of a "round robin" e-mail calling for Labour MPs' to take part in a vote of confidence on Brown. Suddenly, the snow had a rival for top news spot.

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All my Labour MP colleagues immediately grasped the implications of the e-mail. The party's rules make it difficult to challenge a party leader between annual conferences, but if a hundred or so MPs demanded a vote it would create a momentum for one, which their leader would find hard to resist. For this to happen, several cabinet ministers would need to join the rebels.

As the focus turned to the secretaries of state in their departments, it became clear that some were "busier" than others with ministerial duties. Those close to the prime minister, such as Education Secretary Ed Balls and Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward, and a few other decisive ones, such as Scotland Secretary Jim Murphy, pledged loyalty almost immediately. This led the media to focus upon those who were finding it harder to speak up.

It is certain that the normally cautious Hoon and Hewitt believed some senior ministers would come out in their support early on and this would galvanise backbenchers into action. As numbers grew, that in turn would tempt over at least two of the most senior of all ministers and an avalanche would ensue. That was the theory.

Hours passed with no significant movement, elongated psychologically by the 24-hour news stream. Some rebels put the word about that ministers were waiting to see how backbenchers would react first. But with no dissenting ministers appearing, backbenchers began to oppose the plans in angry e-mails back to Hoon and Hewitt. By 5:30pm, Justice Secretary Jack Straw was in front of the cameras stamping out the final embers of the of the day's only political heat-source.

It took a few senior ministers up to two hours to work out that their failure to respond to what was clearly a serious, if short-lived, crisis was being read as calculated ambiguity.

Cabinet ministers are of course genuinely very busy, and some certainly felt early on that it was better not to give the rebellion legs by talking it up. But Foreign Secretary David Miliband's statement, made as late as 7:30pm and manifestly lukewarm in its support for his leader, was either cack-handed or was a strong indicator that he harboured a hope that other more junior Cabinet ministers would have gone before him, enabling him to deliver the coup de grce. Whether it was weak political analysis or personal vacillation – neither a good look in a potential leader – only he can say.

The whole affair has been presented as simply one of personality, including talk of all the Shakespearean staples of kingship, jealousy, obsession and fatal flaws. Yet there was more to it than that, I think.

Scottish Labour MPs are on the whole strongly supportive of Gordon Brown because his priorities and style seem closely in tune with the values and economy of Scotland. Scots, for example, seem keen to help drive social progress but are less prepared to embrace the harsher vicissitudes of the market that some elsewhere feel that implies. So we have a larger public sector and that has cushioned us from the worst of the recent recession.

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Labour MPs like me also argue that with the "union versus independence" at the core of the election in Scotland, but not in England, the tough world of economic circumstances has shown the SNP's international exemplars, small states like Iceland, brutally exposed to the ravages of financial collapse. Meanwhile the failure of some of Scotland's financial institutions was absorbed by the great mass of the UK.

The picture in England is different. The battleground there is mainly across Labour/Tory marginals. Ideas including "redistribution" and "fairness" may have less purchase there, so politicians tend to stress ideas such as "aspiration" and "growth" instead.

These might seem just simple linguistic nuance, but it's really a more substantive matter of reflecting local people's own priorities. Some say that society in parts of the UK is more atomised, others that it's more dynamic and diverse. Yet while most seem to believe that the constituent parts of the UK are stronger together than apart, there's no question that local tastes do vary and political imperatives must flow from those. The rebels clearly thought a new leader, with a differently presented agenda, would appeal better in English marginals.

So, in the end, what did Wednesday all add up to? Three things, I think.

First, in the light of polls that show the Conservative lead on Labour narrowing, Labour MPs in English marginals decided that Gordon Brown's unflashy style and economic priorities would play as well in their constituencies as they do in Scotland. Second, any division about who should lead Labour into the election has gone. Third, some aspiring leadership hopefuls failed to match their vaulting ambition with a the kind of political toughness Gordon Brown is famous for. In doing so they caused a wee stushie for Labour but put a big stookie on their own chances of upward mobility.

• Eric Joyce is MP for Falkirk