Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Friday, 30 May 2008 17:18 UK

Martha Kearney's week

By Martha Kearney
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World at One

I was sitting in my garden reading the papers about the disarray in Labour after the Crewe by-election when I noticed that my bees had begun to swarm.

Martha Kearney in her garden (PIC: David Montgomery)
Oh beehive: Martha's bees got her thinking (PIC: David Montgomery)

High above the hive they darted to and fro in apparent pandemonium.

Then with that unerring drive for unity they all began heading for one place to cluster around their leader, ending up in a closely knit swarm hanging from a hazel tree.

You probably see what I am getting at. I think Labour MPs are in Swarm Phase One but have not decided which hazel tree to head for.

There was certainly a huge flurry of plotting and rumour in the aftermath of the Crewe defeat but I spoke to one of the ministers who had been prepared to go to Gordon Brown and tell him to go.

Their view now is that the risk of civil war in the party is too great so the PM is on probation until the Autumn party conference - with conditions attached.

His focus should be on the troubled economy and he must be prepared to give more power to his cabinet.

A former cabinet minister told me that there would be no move until the Autumn: "September did for Tony. The same month will be the end of Gordon."

Buzzing madly

Another minister said that "Gordon will have to give the performance of his life" at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting on Monday when MPs return to Westminster.

But even during the normal calm of recess, backbenchers have been buzzing madly, threatening to sting the PM in his fuel escalator.

MPs are worried about two taxes which will hit motorists.

Ronnie Campbell came on The World at One on Monday to talk about his opposition to higher Vehicle Excise Duty on older, more polluting cars and said that the motorist was "taking the brunt again".

Grangemouth refinery
The government wants to increase UK fuel production

Many in the party are worried this will hit people on lower incomes who are very important to Labour electorally.

Another backbencher, Dr Brian Iddon, told us that the core vote was being hit, left, right and centre and people feel "heavily bruised".

He and many others are worried about the high cost of petrol and diesel.

Newspaper headlines

They want a further delay in the two pence rise in fuel duty which has already been deferred until October. There have been real mixed messages over what the government intends to do over this.

On Tuesday, Jack Straw told me (on VED) that in wasn't due to come into force until next April "and the chancellor and the prime minister have said quite explicitly we are listening to public concerns about this and if there are going to be decisions announced they could be announced in the Autumn statement."

That led to newspaper headlines the next day about U-turns and stories about another mini-Budget.

The view from the Treasury was that the justice secretary had certainly overstepped the mark.

Downing Street too briefed against his remarks.

In fact Jack Straw's intention in coming on the programme (as well as discussing drugs policy) had been to dampen down speculation that he was one of the men in grey suits about to tell Gordon to go.

Calm shattered

Instead some Brownites suspect he is using the fuel issue as a platform for a leadership bid himself. Jack Straw is now keeping his favourite grey suit in the wardrobe.

So what will the government do on fuel?

On Wednesday the beautiful calm of Banchory on the River Dee was shattered by a hastily arranged meeting between the PM, chancellor and oil producers.

The balance that Gordon Brown now has to strike is one between "listening", being more collegiate and appearing to cave in (often too late) when faced with a backbench rebellion

They were able to announce afterwards that oil production in the North Sea would be increased by 70,000 barrels a day because of licensing changes.

Sounds good, but that is under 4% of annual North Sea oil production.

Given that there is a world market in oil, the move will make no difference to the price of petrol at the pumps.

Alistair Darling conceded that point when he came on the programme but insisted that all oil producing countries needed to take a lead.

He also dropped a strong hint that the two pence increase in fuel tax would be delayed again with an announcement before October.

Changing behaviour

On Vehicle Excise Duty however he took a much tougher tone arguing that this was an important change for environmental reasons.

What of Greenpeace's view that it gave green taxes a bad name because it would not change behaviour as people had already bought the polluting cars?

"I completely disagree", said the chancellor.

But some predict that come next year when the changes come in, there will be another backbench revolt and Alistair Darling will simply have to give way then with all the accusations of weakness and lack of principle.

The political danger facing the government and Gordon Brown in particular at the moment is a loss of authority.

After the success of the ten pence tax rebellion and the damage done to Gordon Brown's leadership by poor election results, backbenchers feel they can get their way on anything.

Bee update

Ministers are desperately trying to find a compromise on the plans to extend detention without charge to 42 days.

(Though when Tony McNulty, a political bruiser told me on Thursday that he was seeking "consensus", I did fantasise that the sentence ended "or the boys will be round").

Sixty three Labour MPs have also signed a motion attacking the government's plans to take major planning decisions on projects like nuclear power stations and airports away from politicians to an independent commission of experts.

The votes on that happen on Monday.

The balance that Gordon Brown now has to strike is one between "listening", being more collegiate and appearing to cave in (often too late) when faced with a backbench rebellion.

What? Oh my bees.

Well, we dashed out to get a ladder to lure the swarm back down from the tree but they had disappeared before I could put them in a box.

That's political analysis for you.

Add your comments using the form below.

Name
Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.





SEE ALSO
Martha Kearney's week
27 May 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
16 May 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
09 May 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's election verdict
02 May 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
25 Apr 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
18 Apr 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
22 Feb 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
15 Feb 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
25 Jan 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
20 Jan 08 |  UK Politics
Martha Kearney's week
13 Jan 08 |  UK Politics

RELATED BBC LINKS


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific