Labour at a loss

WHAT little chance Labour had of retaining its grip on power has this weekend all but disappeared.

The attempted coup by former Cabinet ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt was a farce, as ineptly executed as it was ill-conceived, and its effect has been to make Gordon Brown's leadership abilities – or rather their absence – the touchstone issue of the looming general election. The loathing of the Prime Minister that exists in some quarters of the Labour ranks never fails to astonish. This cannot be a surprise to Mr Brown, given the vigour with which he and his cohorts waged a decade-long guerrilla war against the Blairites in New Labour, caring little for the many casualties along the way. There are plenty of Labour ministers and former ministers whose personal animus towards Mr Brown is among their strongest political motivations. The Prime Minister's most bitter opponents are on his own benches.

Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt are not exactly natural leaders for a political revolution – they are hardly the most popular members of the parliamentary Labour party. The success of their venture depended on Cabinet ministers such as Harriet Harman and David Miliband taking last week's move as a cue, encouraged by a spontaneous uprising of rebellious MPs. This did not happen last June when James Purnell's resignation offered an opportunity for a Cabinet revolt and it did not happen last week either. It is hard to imagine why anyone thought it would. One explanation is that Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt had been fed misleading intelligence about the readiness and willingness of key Cabinet ministers to move against Mr Brown. Another, not incredible, theory is that the plotters knew they had no chance of deposing the PM and that they just wanted to hurt him, so intense is their contempt for him and his abilities. That either scenario would be contemplated less than five months before the likely date of a general election is a measure of how disconnected senior Labour figures have become from political realities.

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What is clear this weekend, however, is that the Prime Minister's survival last week had its price. The hours between the announcement of the coup and the qualified and unconvincing messages of support from certain ministers were not spent in idleness. On Wednesday afternoon, it seems, senior Cabinet ministers – showing an impressive ability to spot and exploit an opportunity in a colleague's misfortune – named their price for their continued support. No coincidence, then, that Alistair Darling is this weekend expressing some satisfaction at having won his battle with the PM over how candid to be about the scale of public sector cuts required in the coming years to tackle Britain's eye-watering national debt. And no coincidence that Ms Harman is now assured a key role in Labour's general election campaign team.

They may regard themselves as winners in all this, but their party is undoubtedly a loser. David Cameron will not let this opportunity pass him by. Just as Labour seemed to be creeping back into contention and regaining some momentum in the polls, the Conservatives have been handed the most powerful weapon in politics – they can point to their opponents and say: "This is a divided party." Not only that, they can point to the Prime Minister and say: "This man does not have the confidence of many of his closest colleagues." Given Mr Brown's well-documented inability to connect with certain sections of the Middle English electorate, this is a cataclysm for the Labour party, and it is hard to see how he can convincingly counter these lines of attack.

Political historians may well judge the past week as the moment Labour threw away its last slim hope of staying in power. If this turns out to be the case the verdict on Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt will be doubly harsh – they will be guilty of an historic misjudgment, undermining their party on the eve of an election, and of failing to install a more likely winner. As Jim Murphy, the Scottish Secretary warns, the lesson from the 20th century is that when Labour loses power it is left in wilderness, often for decades. For Labour, a familiar fate looms large. The Conservatives have a late but very welcome Christmas present.