I’ve spent the last few hours trawling Westminster to gauge the reactions to the Hoon-Hewitt rebellions. So far – I emphasise as of 3pm – it appears to be a damp squib.
1] Rebellion fatigue. We have been through this before so many times that MPs and journalists are wary of getting over-excited. If Brown could survive the multiple resignations of last summer then what will it take to fell him?
2] Cowardice. Many MPs, possibly 100 or more, would put their name to a secret ballot. How many would put their names to a public one?
3] Mechanics. In that case, who would organise a secret ballot that would be credible? Labour won’t do it. Is there any other way of gauging MP support for Hoon and Hewitt? One MP tells me he has written to Nick Brown (chief whip) and Tony Lloyd (chair of the PLP) to say he backs the rebellion. Is this the favoured way forward? If so, would we expect Brown and Lloyd to go public with the size of the revolt? Not necessarily. Meanwhile the formal Labour process for electing new leaders is hugely complicated and would take months.
4] Timing. The general election is only a few months away. The prospect of bloody civil war within the Labour party fills MPs with horror. Remember, their £65,000 salary depends on retaining their seats. That seems less likely if Labour looks as if it is falling apart from the centre.
5] Rebel Leadership. Hewitt is not the most popular of Labour MPs because she is a sworn Blairite, an advocate of free market economics and reform and – let’s face it – a wealthy individual with several directorships. Hoon, meanwhile, may be reasonably liked (one key Brownite was defending him today as a ‘good bloke’) but is known to be unhappy over missing out on the Europe job. It is understood that Hoon took the flak over the Iraq war, then ate dirt as chief whip, and also had to face public anger over the Heathrow expansion. His reward; the back benches. But perceived bitterness may not enhance his coup-dos.
6] Alternative party leader. Who is the saviour who will lead Labour out of the wilderness? If he exists, why can’t Labour agree on who he is? The lack of consensus (should it be David Miliband, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Alan Johnson, Harriet Harman etc) is telling.
Of course, everything depends still on what the cabinet does. We’ve had a few senior ministers popping up to defend Gordon (Andy Burnham, Sean Woodward,) but there could still be a surprise or two.
3.14pm Lord Mandelson is putting out a statement saying there has been an over-reaction given that Hoon and Hewitt are no longer ministers. It should be business as usual, he will say. That is clearly a development in Brown’s favour.