Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Saturday, 13 September 2008 16:53 UK

Martha Kearney's week

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

Gordon Brown
Rebels are undecided about who could replace Gordon Brown

I went away on holiday this summer with some trepidation.

I was particularly worried about being out of the country during the first week of September, which had been fingered on many politicos' diaries as the time when a coup would be mounted against Gordon Brown.

I have had a chequered history when it comes to news stories and holidays. I was in Greece during the Kalamata earthquake and in Egypt when the massacre at the Hatshepsut temple took place (and ended up filing for the BBC for several days).

But I have been away from Westminster for some really big political stories.

I was in Cuba when Peter Mandelson resigned for the second time. The first I heard about it was on the plane home when I ripped a newspaper from a fellow passenger's hands to read the details.

More surprising was when I was accosted on a remote beach in Mexico by an Englishman who said: "Have you heard about Howard Flight's resignation?" (You may remember he was the shadow chief secretary who called for tax cuts).

"No," I said, "but I am very interested because I am a political journalist."

"Yes, that's why I am telling you", he explained patiently.

So I was quite anxious that there would be some great political revolution while I was away.

'Coup talk'

At a summer party just before I headed off several Blairites had been telling me that it was all over for Gordon.

One friend of David Miliband even said that the foreign secretary was reconciled to having to fight a general election if he took over as prime minister but reckoned that he would have a hundred days to make his mark.

Another actually advised me against going away in early September.

There was even talk that a coup would be mounted against Brown while he was away at the Olympics in the style of a banana republic. So I kept a nervous eye on the British papers while I was away.

On my return this week, I really thought that the feverish mood had died down. The main leadership contenders had decided that they would make no move before conference on the grounds that the parliamentary party didn't want a contest and also to give Gordon Brown a chance to make his series of policy announcements.

Nobody wants to be the assassin.

Plan B?

One cabinet minister told me today that people are very unhappy with the polls but that they're uncertain about the efficacy of Plan B.

"There may be a sense that with a change of leader, with one bound we'd be free - but there is no one bound."

But behind the scenes Siobhain McDonagh, Joan Ryan (both MPs in Southern marginals) and a number of other MPs are clearly frustrated with the Cabinet's failure to act against Gordon Brown.

They have written to Labour's general secretary asking for nomination papers, in other words demanding a leadership contest.

She and her formidable sister Margaret, Labour's former general secretary, are party stalwarts, totally devoted to their constituents in Mitcham and Morden in South London where they have gone canvassing every weekend since they were teenagers.

But that loyalty to Labour is inextricably linked with passionate devotion to Tony Blair. Margaret McDonagh is one of his closest confidantes.

Gordon Brown was keen to use her organisational skills but she decided not to get involved. (She's now pursuing a career as agent to June Sarpong and John Reid.)

In fact I remember bumping into the two sisters just before the Glasgow East by-election and asking what the mood was like. They looked at each other guiltily before admitting they hadn't been to Glasgow - the first by-election campaign they'd missed in two decades.

Stalking horse?

So are the McDonagh sisters and the others acting on behalf of any individual candidate? That seems unlikely.

I imagine before long we will hear David Miliband, Alan Johnson and Jack Straw saying that they don't want to be nominated.

It seems very difficult for the rebels to get the sufficient 70 names of MPs in order to trigger a contest under the rules.

The strategy seems to be to create turmoil before the Labour party conference so that an atmosphere of crisis is created. In those circumstances, (the calculation goes) perhaps cabinet members might be persuaded to go to Gordon Brown to persuade him to go.

But the Prime Minister is a hard man to dislodge.

That was the same tactic employed by Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn when they set up their 2020 website and none but the uber-Blairites came to support them.

On the other hand the political situation for Labour looks far more serious now with that Channel Four news poll of marginal seats suggesting a Conservative majority of 150 seats.

Maybe Labour MPs in marginals will feel they have nothing to lose by supporting a contest.

The prevailing view in the cabinet is to see the party conference through and then take stock. But ministers accept that if the speech doesn't go down well, the party fails to reach 30% in the polls then there could be a momentum.

Thatcher parallel

Some are studying carefully the downfall of Margaret Thatcher when the resignation of Geoffrey Howe provoked the crisis which led to her ultimate resignation.

A Cabinet minister deciding to go and making a similarly vicious statement in the Commons could be fatal for Gordon Brown and that's certainly a scenario I have heard discussed at senior levels.

On the other hand supporters of Gordon Brown maintain that he has come back refreshed after the break, he's lost weight and is in a much better frame of mind.

At the party conference itself activists are likely to call for unity.

But the prevailing political uncertainty will put more pressure on Gordon Brown to do a U-turn on a windfall tax for the energy companies.

A weakened leader can't afford too many battles with his MPs.

On Thursday the prime minister held a news conference to set out his long awaited package on fuel poverty. Many Labour MPs wanted him to announce a windfall tax on the profits of energy suppliers but that wasn't on the table.

Energy letdown

Instead the companies would be contributing around a billion pounds over three years to help with insulation. There would be an extra 74m for the government's own Warm Front scheme.

But there are problems with that announcement as our programme analysed on Thursday.

Gordon Brown said that he expected the companies not to pass on their extra costs to the customers. But David Porter from the Association of Electricity Producers told me: "Whenever people impose costs on an industry such as ours, inevitably the bill to some extent ends up with the customer..there are competitive pressures, but in the end someone has to pay for the green agenda which is already costing a lot."

Others told us that the government's Warm Front programme had been cut back in recent years and the new money wouldn't cover the shortfall.

So it seems inevitable that Labour MPs will continue to call for a windfall tax, their campaign given extra momentum by the joke made by an E.ON executive that the rising fuel prices would "just make more money for us".

I spoke to Fabian Hamilton who said that he is pleased that the government is trying to do something but it's not enough to help elderly people with their bills this winter.

Shaun and I are both off to Bournemouth for the Liberal Democrat conference.

I'll be chairing the first of our World At One/RSA conference debates on Sunday night - and if you're going to the Conference, you're welcome to attend.

My guests - including Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne - will be discussing whether the Liberal Democrats are in tune with their voters. Highlights of that on Monday's programme.

On our website - bbc.co.uk/wato - you'll find information about the subsequent debates at the Labour and Conservative conferences with David Miliband and Oliver Letwin.




SEE ALSO
Martha Kearney's week
01 Aug 08 |  UK Politics


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