Britain Teeters

Friday, 5. June 2009     0 comment(s)

Gordon Brown’s prime ministership has never been that strong. Lacking the democratic mandate of having won a general election, too many Britons know the story (be it true or not) that the deal for him to inherit the premiership from Tony Blair was cooked up over dinner in an Islington restaurant back in the mid-1990s when New Labour was the rampant insurgent force kicking the last dregs of life out of John Major’s dying Conservative government. Now the shoe (or indeed, Doc Martin boot) is on the other foot, as the Labour government staggers under the combined blows of public disgust, opposition attacks and Labour Party infighting.

Britain held its European and local council elections yesterday and, although the results for MEPs are embargoed until Sunday evening when all of the EU has voted, it looks possible that Labour may end up in fourth position. Such a result would be completely unprecedented. The UK is not a two party state, but the ‘third party’ – the Liberal Democrats – normally trails in well behind the Conservatives and Labour. The idea that Labour might end up behind not only the Tories and the Lib Dems, but also the ultra-eurosceptic and rather marginal UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a seismic shock in British politics.

The ongoing scandal around MPs’ expenses claims seemed for the first few weeks to be damaging all the parliamentary parties equally, but in the last week it has begun infect Labour more than the Conservatives. Conservative leader David Cameron has fought through the scandal more savagely, willingly throwing some of his parliamentary party colleagues under the bus of public opinion. This ruthlessness has helped him avoid excessive media interest in his own expenses claims, which are not insignificant, although it is said to be storing up anger within the Conservative party amongst MPs who feel they have been sacrificed because they are not close to the leadership, rather than their expenses claims being any more unjustifiable than people who remain in Cameron’s shadow cabinet. Meanwhile Gordon Brown has let the expenses scandal mutate into more fodder in the internecine struggles within his own party. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and local government minister Hazel Blears have both resigned from the government. Their stepping down was prompted by scandal around their own expenses claims, but came to be seen as a vote of no-confidence in Gordon Brown’s leadership. Last night the resignation of James Purnell, the minister of pensions and work, came as an even more severe blow. Purnell has also faced accusations about his expenses, but he has counter attacked hard, claiming the Daily Telegraph simply had its facts wrong in his case. Most MPs have realised there was little they could say to the claims beyond sorry, so Purnell’s indignation leads one to suspect that there may actually be less to his case than meets the eye. Hence Purnell resigned because he believes that Brown’s leadership will cost Labour the next election, and not because he has been compromised by scandal.

But the prime minister has not stopped fighting yet. Today his major cabinet reshuffle has cleverly kept potential rivals for the party leadership inside the government and therefore still crewing the ship – even if it is sinking.  Before today the reshuffle was thought likely to take place on Sunday night or Monday morning, after the Euro elections results have been announced and the expected Labour collapse at the polls. Brown has now been forced to use the reshuffle tactic to stabilise his government in the light of Purnell's resignation, but if that was the final bullet he had to fire, what does he now do come Sunday night?

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