Hoon and Hewitt’s demand for a ballot on Brown is more important than it initially appears. Two has-beens, both standing down at the next election, don’t have nearly the gravitas of a cabinet minister resigning – and the Prime Minister has already survived that. It’s the secret ballot that makes this really interesting.
Both Hoon and Hewitt are weakened by their legacy as ministers and by their expenses claims. Geoff Hoon has been criticised at the Chilcott Inquiry for refusing to let the Army properly prepare for war in Iraq when he was Defence Secretary. He also has been accused of flipping his second home designation multiple times – but Brown stuck up for him.
And there’s something suspicious about Hoon’s timing: there were rumours at the last coup that he was bought off with the promise of a European job. He hasn’t got one, this could very well be sour grapes.
Patricia Hewitt presided over very real problems with the hiring of junior doctors when she was Health Secretary. She also had some questions over her expenses. Neither have the gravitas required to topple Brown without the power of ministerial office, which both of them lack.
Yet their suggestion that Brown hold a secret ballot means that their individual status isn’t particularly important – the idea they’ve put forwards is workable, compelling, and attractive to those who want to remove Brown without being seen to have blood on their hands. Had the idea been put forward in July, it most likely would have toppled Brown. But Hoon stayed loyal to Brown back then.
If Brown dismisses this out of hand, he’ll look like he’s afraid that he doesn’t have the support of the party and like he’s dodging a challenge. So soon before an election, this would undoubtedly weaken him, especially as he hasn’t won an election as Labour leader.
And if Brown does take up the challenge – I haven’t seen any polling of Labour party members, but going from gossip on twitter, blogs, newspapers and other unreliable titbits – it would appear that there is strong enough anti-Brown sentiment to remove him. And even if there isn’t, a close run ballot would still weaken him (Margaret Thatcher won the challenge against her but not convincingly enough to stay as leader).
It’s such a smart plan (although not strictly within the Labour Party rules) that combined with the involvement of but one cabinet minister resigning, it could be enough to remove Brown. Securing the PM will take all of Lord Mandelson’s talents, and given the rumours of a rift between them in recent months, he’s worth watching very closely indeed. His latest statement is hardly very supportive:
“No one should over-react to this initiative. It is not led by members of the government. No one has resigned from the government. The prime minister continues to have the support of his colleagues and we should carry on government business as usual.”
Those whose resignations would hurt the most (Darling, Harman, Straw) are so far silent (although Straw is rumoured to be saying something soon). Don’t dismiss this attempt out of hand, the secret ballot request is far more damaging than an outright attack.