However you want to characterise my blog, it isn’t a political rumour mill. I don’t hear whispers in Westminster corridors from disgruntled backbenchers and inebriated ministers; no one ever leaks me compromising correspondence surreptitiously photocopied by bitter ministerial aides passed over for promotion. I’m an armchair blogger reflecting on the political world from the provinces, about a day behind the real frontier of political events. Sadly I’m never going to get the scoop and break the big story to a gobsmacked world.
But let’s imagine just for a moment that I am that sort of blogger and that some incredibly indiscreet member of the Prime Minister’s coterie has just let slip to me something huge, a completely unforeseen development, a forthcoming masterstroke from the Prime Minister that is going to change the face of British politics.
I am now able to break the biggest story of my young life:
Ken Livingstone, recently defeated Mayor of London, is to be the Labour candidate in the Glasgow-East by-election. And when he wins – and his decision to stand ends all question of a Labour defeat – Brown is going to offer to make him Minister for Housing with Cabinet rank.
The story would be huge; some people would actually visit my blog; a handful might even read past the headline; it would be fastest-finger-first blogging at its best. Seeing as there have been no media prognostications, seeing as the lack of any what-if articles means that I am being forced to invent one, it probably won’t happen. But just imagine if it did; just think how clever it would be.
Most commentators seem agreed that the Glasgow East by-election threatens to deal to the coup de grace to Brown’s premiership. As summer-becalmed MPs start to turn their attention towards the Conference season of daylight seriousness and nocturnal riotousness, the overturning of Labour’s 13,000 majority could well shake the conspirators out of the shadows and put an end to Brown’s political career.
Livingstone’s selection would rule that eventuality out. With Brown and Labour so unpopular, particularly amongst its working-class base, what the government needs is a candidate willing to stand under the Labour banner, but who has an independent political following and a longstanding appeal to traditional Labour voters. Even in defeat, Ken Livingstone proved that he was able to poll ahead of the Labour party nationally because of his unique political history and style. He is able to deliver both Labour voters and Livingstone voters. With that coalition, no matter what contortions the psephologists perform with turnout and a split vote, there is no way that Labour could lose.
Brown’s side of the calculation is fairly straightforward. He needs an electoral saviour and Livingstone practically has a halo round his bald, pink head. But why should Livingstone do it? Livingstone has clearly been devastated by his defeat. He talks about his time as London Mayor as the best years of his life. He is desperate to be Mayor again and clearly hopes to run in 2012. So why should he want to get himself elected as MP for one of Britain’s most deprived constituencies only to spend his life shuttling back and forth between Glasgow and Westminster?
There are several compelling reasons. Livingstone’s media profile is high right now: people are still interested to see how he is adapting to civilian life, to hear what he makes of Johnson’s maladroit opening moves. But if he sits on the sidelines and snipes at Johnson for the next four years that media profile will fall away and he will find it more difficult to gain the Labour nomination and win the mayoral election. Plus Livingstone is an executive politician: he’s a doer, not a speechmaker. That’s where the offer to be Housing Minister comes in. Livingstone wouldn’t go back to the Commons to warm the backbenchers and to get his hands on the John Lewis list. He would go back, though, if Brown gave him an important ministerial job. He would be unable to resist. Making progress on affordable housing is one of Livingstone’s big political priorities and he wouldn’t be able to turn down an opportunity to run the show. The government claims to be serious about affordable housing and if it is there is no clearer signal it could send the electorate than putting Livingstone in charge.
Livingstone should do it last of all because the Labour party needs him to do it. This gambit might not save the Labour government, but it would give it more time. It would mean that if Brown is to receive his death blow it would have to come as a result of something else. In the meantime the negative aspect of the story would be neutralized and the government would have another chance (perhaps its last) to positively shape the agenda through a Conference-season relaunch.
For the first time I regret the relatively low traffic of this website for other than personal reasons. Let’s just hope that against the odds, someone with the power to make this happen is reading.