Reflecting on the first two Party Leaders’ debates something struck me which was perhaps not obvious at the time: Gordon Brown didn’t look particularly worried about what must now be the approaching end to his turbulent Premiership.
Regardless of how the election campaign twists and turns between now and 6th May, there seems little chance that Brown will be able to cling on to the keys of Number Ten. Even if Labour scrape themselves away from third place in the opinion polls, it would seem ridiculous to suggest that they will recover sufficiently to win a parliamentary majority.
So what does the future hold for Gordon Brown? Are there any post-election scenarios in which he survives?
There is one, of course, and that’s a Labour majority on 6th May. Unlikely as that outcome seems, the future would still hold a number of traps for Brown, not least the prospect of continual challenges to his position from a parliamentary party which seems ill-at-ease under his leadership. Even so, all the polling data would seem to point to a majority Labour government being the least likely of all the possible General Election outcomes.
So what happens if there’s a sudden change of mood to the campaign, or all the polls are wrong, and we end up with a Tory majority? Ironically this is the outcome which is most likely to prolong Brown’s leadership of his party. No deals will have to be done, there will be no rush to replace him in order to strike an agreement with the Lib Dems, and the Labour Party would be able to take its time to choose his successor. He may even start to be missed as the reality of a Cameron/Osborne government hits home. Of course, he’d still be gone by the end of the summer.
But to be perfectly honest, the 2010 campaign narrative doesn’t point to a majority for either of the old parties. This in itself is the biggest real “change” on offer, and none of the resulting possibilities offers a Brown premiership the chance of survival.
If Labour are the largest party in the new House of Commons, and also claim the largest share of the popular vote, then their claim to lead the government will be the strongest (or least weak). However, even that result would indicate a significant decline in public support for the Brown government – carrying on in the same way would simply not be an option – and I don’t see any circumstances in which Nick Clegg would prop up an administration headed by a Prime Minister who has lost the support of the public (which gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim “Vote Clegg get Brown”). Any Tory who tells you otherwise is clearly in the throes of panic at their previously commanding poll lead disappearing as soon as Cameron, Osborne, Pickles et al faced the exposure of an election campaign. If Labour entertain any hope of governing with Liberal Democrat assistance the first thing they will have to do is replace their leader (the second is agree to proper electoral reform).
If the Tories are the largest single party with the largest share of the vote then you could argue that it would be their moral right to try to form a government. In such a scenario things could become a great deal more Machiavellian. It’s not such an outlandish suggestion that David Cameron would be more comfortable seeking the support (or non-opposition) of the Labour Party than he would be having to make concessions to a Liberal Democrat party which would want to see a number of fundamental changes to the way politics operates in Britain. If that’s not possible then the Tories will have to talk to the Lib Dems and, more importantly, listen to them too. Either way, Brown couldn’t continue at the head of his party.
Perhaps the worst result for both Labour and the Conservatives would be if Labour were the largest party despite being only second or third in the popular vote. In such a situation the case for electoral reform would become unarguable. Indeed, even if Labour become the second largest party but lie third in the popular vote the days of first past the post would surely be numbered. Once again, there’s no room for Brown in this picture.
My guess is that when the end comes, deep down, Gordon will probably be relieved that it’s all over. There’s no doubt that a man as proud as he is will be full of regrets at the wasted chances of his premiership, not to mention cursing the misfortune which was continually thrown in his direction, but there will surely also be the deeply human reaction that finally the suffering is over. The only way Gordon Brown survives as Labour Leader or Prime Minister is if he wins outright, and it’s not a particularly bold prediction to say that it’s simply not going to happen.