In November I listed four “known unknowns” that I thought had the most chance of changing the political landscape before the election – the end of the recession, the budget, the leaders debates and the last chance for Labour to oust Brown. January was always really the last opportunity for Labour to remove him, and to be honest I was starting to think that it would go quietly without a final attempt by Labour rebels – but lo and behold, here it is.

So, would getting rid of Brown help Labour? On the positive side, I’m certain Brown is dragging down Labour. The polling questions that are normally used to test this are hypothetical questions asking how people would vote with X as Labour leader, and don’t suggest any great transformation with another leader. I’ve rubbished these questions many, many times before and I don’t want to rehearse the same arguments – essentially they are very hard to do if you want to make them really comparable. More importantly, they are expecting people to predict how they will react to alternative leaders they probably don’t know much about.

Look instead at these polls. Firstly a question from MORI in July 2008 – an excellent question that they sadly don’t seem to have asked since. They asked people whether they liked Brown and Labour, Brown but not Labour, Labour but not Brown, or neither of them. 21% of people liked Labour, but not Brown. 11% liked Brown but not Labour. Overall 29% of people liked Brown, but 39% liked Labour. In comparison, only 8% liked the Conservatives but not Cameron, 19% liked him but not his party. The totals there were 43% liked the Conservatives, but 54% liked Cameron. Brown is dragging his party down, Cameron is boosting his.

Secondly, look at Brown’s personal ratings. One could pick any of huge numbers of polls for this, they are uniformly awful, but my example here is Populus’s 2009 conference poll. 63% thought he was weak, 69% not up to the job, 69% out of touch, 67% dithering, 56% unlikeable, 86% dull, 61% a liability, and so on – there are pages of negative ratings. David Cameron outranked him on every single one, even things like substantial vs lightweight that were once Brown’s strongest cards.

Labour have improved in the polls since these two examples, and the chances are there is some improvement in Brown’s own scores… but even quite a chunky improvement would still leave them as pretty horrific.

Finally, take the figures about halfway down this page, and compare them with the actual voting intention figures from the Summer of 2006. Before Gordon Brown became leader people told pollsters it would make them less likely to vote Labour. When he did become leader, Labour immediately soared in the polls and enjoyed a few months solidly ahead of the Conservatives.

The moral is, don’t look at hypothetical polls of how people think they might vote with X in charge. People are rubbish at predicting how they will react, especially how they would react to a politician most of them know little about, becoming PM and doing things none of the respondents can predict. We don’t really know how the public would react in practice to Alan Johnson, or David Miliband as leader, but we do know what they think of Gordon Brown.

The opposite side of the argument is, of course, the damage done to Labour by the process of removing Gordon Brown and the opportunity cost of having a leadership election, which could drag on for many weeks, in the immediate run up to an election campaign. The Conservatives could make hay while Labour argued with itself, and exactly how would Labour plan the election campaign itself without knowing who would be their leader when it arrived?

Charles Clarke suggested that a leadership contest could be over in 21 days. Certainly it could be if Labour gathered round a single candidate (and under the circumstances, the pressure to do so would be immense), but that can’t be guaranteed. I don’t know enough about the details of the Labour party’s constitution to know whether there are any other ways of avoiding a long contest, either way it’s not too difficult to come up with scenarios where getting rid of Brown is even more disasterous for Labour. It would be a huge gamble.

In terms of polls, if any of the Sunday newspapers have commissioned polling for this weekend it’s probably in the field around now – though of course, this latest story might have collapsed or moved on by the time we see the figures.

UPDATE: Actually it seems we will have some figures tonight after all (though one might well argue that the plot appears to already have fizzled out already, bar one of the dwindling number of cabinet ministers who has not yet backed Brown pulling out a surprise). YouGov apparently in the Sun tomorrow – not certain when the fieldwork began and ended.

79 Responses to “The plot against Brown”

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  1. @SIMON
    Dont get to excited. The last rumour on twitter regarding polls reduced the Tory lead to 3%. The reality was 17 %.

  2. The BBC News 24 could not find space to report the “coup” in the first 35 minutes after 8:00 pm. The organisation of the coup speaks volume about the conspirators. The most charitable comment on Hoon would be that he comes across as extremely “ordinary” whereas Hewitt has an ego slightly larger than her hair-do. If ever a balloon fizzed out, this is the one.

    I suppose they were not to know that the Big Freeze would be the only NEWS.


    That’s very funny.

  4. @ Roland Haines

    “If Alan Duncan and Ann Widdecombe tried to fillet Cameron in the way the Labour twosome have treated Brown, I wonder what sort of doomsday for conservatism you would be predicting?”

    My point was that Brown isn’t popular anyway. He isn’t running on a platform of being liked. Cameron is. So any sign that Cameron is losing traction with his own party would be much more damaging for him.

  5. @ Roland there are more than two. They had close to 50 rebels in the summer and that was without any candidate stepping forward. Take Greg Pope who brought up the disgraceful way Blair was taken down.

    Take Miliband already fundraising for a leadership challenge. Brown couldn’t even discipline Hoon for flipping three homes for fear of rocking the boat and even floated his name as a candidate for high commissioner to the EU.

    Brown wanted Balls to take over from Darling and Darling to go to the home office but Darling refused. Brown isn’t in any position to rock the boat.

    You had a cabinet minister step down in the summer. I still think there is a deep division among mp’s and in the party between blair and brown factions and that is why Brown is so beholden to Mandelson.

    You also had some MP’s step forward today in marginals where they aren’t getting support and the local party workers wanted a leadership challenge.

    Just imagine if Labour can deny Cameron a majority and all the infighting. To get the lib dems labour may have to offer Miliband as PM. Imagine the infighting for the PM position and Brown trying to hang on. I can see Mandelson wanting to be Foreign secretary as he already has said. It seems like if Labour did manage to somehow hang on it wouldn’t even get better. Could you imagine all the by elections and the leadership challenges if labour was even in a weaker position. Right now of course this means nothing but it doesn’t bode well at all if Labour somehow manages to keep Cameron short of a majority. And if they do lose the blame game and infighting will be just as bad.

  6. @Roland Haines

    Maybe I am being too optimistic, but if you predicted a 12 month trend (extrapolating May 2009-2010) it puts lab at about 33 and cons at about 38. Obviously this is pretty much nonsense figures when the tories massive election fund comes into play, but I feel there’s a significant resurgence in Labour support as Con policies come under scrutiny. The debates could massively boost their support.

  7. Jason
    “I have no doubt that if Brown quietly stepped aside and Alan Johnson took over then Labour would do much better.”

    You’re probably right, but what if it was Milliband or Mandelson or some other deeply unattractive person?

    Johnson seems rational and fairly normal, but that makes him unusual amongst politicians.

  8. £4bn gilt sold in minutes:

    The Guardian:Investors snapped up a £4bn auction of government bonds today, defying critics who have warned that so-called gilts could be shunned over concerns about the public finances.

    The Debt Management Office (DMO), which manages gilt auctions, reported the highest level of demand for gilts in nine months after receiving bids for 2.86 times the amount of gilts on offer. The strong demand followed a furore caused by reports that two of the world’s biggest bond investors, Pimco and Blackrock, were negative on UK government bonds.

    And the auction came on the same day Treasury officials were accused of “using uncertainty to suit themselves” by MPs who urged the chancellor to produce more detailed forecasts of public spending to show how he will tackle the £178bn deficit in the public finances.

  9. The only comparison of which I am aware was when Australian Labor sacked their leader on 3 February 1983 and the Tory PM Malcolm Fraser called a snap election which the Tory lost. Bob Hawke – the new leader – then became Prime Minister for the Labor party.

    I thought a comparative western example would show that it is quite possible to change leaders late and win an election.

  10. But there’s a big difference between a new leader of the opposition and a new PM before an election.

  11. @ Surbiton

    Well I can’t speak for News 24 but it was the lead item on the 10pm BBC1 News

  12. Unbelievable how fickle BBC1 can be. 15 mins+ on snow at 6. At 10, lead story is Brown.


  13. ITV reporting 9% lead in YouGov.

  14. I’m bored stiff with TV news showing pictures of gritters and piles of snow and would rather watch news on the attempted coup against Brown, but I think the TV networks are afraid that for most people the opposite is true, especially the BBC – Sky News are more interested in politics it seems.

  15. Not much change:

    YouGov/The Sun: CON 40 (nc) LAB 31 (+1) LIB DEM 17 (nc)

  16. Andrew Myers: However, it probably reported a flop ! I just cannot see why this should hurt Brown or Labour.
    No resignation – no news ! Milliband probably bottled it, again.

  17. Robinson on BBC has named the six Cabinet Members who funked it at the wire.

    I think that makes a difference if it is correct-ie there really was a plot involving Cabinet colleagues.

    Now it isn’t just a pair of dissaffected Blairite has- beens.

    That is something which Cameron can work with,He should now be able to retrieve some momentum.

    The next YouGov Poll will be very interesting.

  18. This whole thing is very weird. Neither Hoon nor Hewitt are political ingenues so I can’t believe that they didn’t have a follow-up plan in place that’s now fallen through. I think Nick Robinson must be right about the 6 cabinet ministers and that, as before, they bottled it when it came to the crunch.

    And I find myself wondering, again, what strange hold the Dark Lord Mandelmort has over Labour Party ministers.

  19. James – It’s not weird, it’s a Mandelson-backed episode designed to show Brown as an unstoppable force :) The cabinet ministers involved are just joining in.

    Seriously, I think we’re past the point where a leadership change could have any positive effect, and Hoon must realise that surely? Unless it really is a simple stab at rocking the boat and destroying the partial recovery in the polls, Hoon is simply firing a last salvo in a spirit of “you only ever really regret the things you don’t do”

  20. @JOHN TT
    You are a one! Your first para had me thinking you where serious.
    After all I have read equal flights of fancy regarding Labours chances.

  21. I’d go as far as saying that if Brown had stepped aside 6 months ago, Labour would possibly win this election.

    Not that he’s that bad – I think he’s really stepped up his game since the last atte,pted coup and give Cameron a bit of a battering – as the polls suggest.

    However, I think a lot of the polling is just boredom/distrust/ dislike of the current regime.

    I’m not sure the polling is for Labour policy, or what the party is generally standing for. And I’m not sure it’s a polling for the tories either.

    Devil’s advocate – if a likebale leader like Alan Johnson was in charge now, with the same policy, I’d suggest the poll lead would cut in half, and the tories might even lose.

    I’d even suggest that if Blair was still leading, the poll would be substancially better.

    Let’s remember though – considering it’s a party going for a 4th term, it’s not that bad.

    A 9 point lead, at this time. I think they will be happy with that

  22. PS.

    I really doubt the papers will try and push the “brown leadership” question too much to be honest.

    The tory media want him to stay. They don’t want the x factor of a new leader.

    If you read SKY news poll on the subject they are claiming that a new leader would make no difference to an election through their “poll”

    As in, 8% more people said they would vote Labour without Brown there.

    I’d say that’s a significant difference!

  23. @ JohnTT – another possibility is that some Labour MPs think the next general election is lost and are instead more concerned with the party’s long-term future. They may feel that the spinelessness the PLP has demonstrated over the last year regarding Brown is more damaging to the party’s long-term prospects than even Brown himself and it may be that they were trying to remedy.

    I’m not a Labour supporter but it is quite sad to see a fine old party reduced to such a sorry state. Regardless of one’s own politics, it’s important to our democracy that MPs and ministers do better than this sort of slimy, self-serving, dithering, cowardly variety of politics. It’s quite depressing really.

  24. What was an MP like Patricia Hewitt who, I see from the Leicester West thread, has announced her retirement from the Commons doing trying to call a ballot on replacement of the Prime Minister? She should leave such matters to people who have a stake in the outcome.

    The Labour leadership challenge by Bryan Gould in 1992 comes to mind: when he lost I recollect he went off to be a university Vice-Chancellor in his native New Zealand, rather than support as a UK politician Blair’s fight back. Although at least Bryan Gould was seeking to fill a genuinely open vacancy.

  25. La Toynbee said this morning on DP:-

    The Robinson six were part of it.

    They bottled it because no one would move first.

  26. I find it hard to determine the motives of the plotters. Unless they are complete flakes(which can not be dismissed) they must have known their plot would get nowhere.
    I can only think that they actually want to sabotage the party and inherit the wreckage after the next election. That seems far to conspiratorial though. Perhaps they let their dislike of Brown undermine their judgement.

  27. I think it merely reflects the fact that by choosing when a poll is carried out you can get any result you want!

  28. We need good government.Bring back the Torys and the Liberals
    The Socialists are incapable of running a business which is how we should run this country.The 20th century has been a disaster.Will we allow the 21st to be the same??

  29. @ANDY JS, here is a comprehensive news clip I think you’ll enjoy:

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