Somewhere along the way I must have missed something. I had always thought that governing parties wanted mostly to stay in power. Not so, it seems, in Britain. The consuming topic of conversation in Gordon Brown’s Labour party is how best to lose the next general election.
Should Labour ministers and MPs oust the prime minister and go for an early poll under a new leader? Defeat would be all-but-certain, but the margin might just be respectable. Or should they stick with Mr Brown in the hope that something may turn up? That would be to risk a complete rout at the hands of David Cameron’s Tories in 2010. Choices, choices.
The prevailing mood since last week’s by-election loss of Glasgow East has been one of inchoate despair. After three terms in office, the game seems to be up. As for Mr Brown’s leadership, many, probably most, wish it were otherwise. But how to make it otherwise? Do not ask.
In other circumstances the loss of even so safe a Labour seat might be dismissed as mid-term blues born of the global economic downturn. It is the accumulation of evidence – the dire showing in the opinion polls, in local government contests and other by-elections – that drives the fatalism.
This leaves Mr Brown under serious threat. I am not going to offer odds on whether he will be jettisoned in the autumn. Most of the scenarios painted in recent days owe as much to the aforementioned wishful thinking as to credible conspiracies. On the other hand, Mr Brown has lost the confidence of a great swath of his own followers as well as the affection of the electorate. How this ultimately plays out is unpredictable.
What strikes me as curious is an assumption among those who want shot of the prime minister that the nation would applaud Labour’s good judgment in ridding itself of two leaders within 18 months without so much as a nod to the voters.
Lest it be forgotten, it is barely a year since Labour cheered Mr Brown into Downing Street after deciding that it had had enough of Tony Blair. So confident was the party of the new leader’s qualities that it ostentatiously eschewed any thought of a contest for the succession.
Only a handful of the 350-odd Labour MPs declined to put their names to Mr Brown’s nomination papers. Each and every member of the cabinet pledged their allegiance to the leader for whom, it was said, Britain had waited too long. They were not alone. The liberal commentariat dribbled and drooled over Mr Brown. Now it is leading the chorus of demands for him to go.
Commentators are unaccountable; politicians should be otherwise. In any event, to defenestrate Mr Brown would be to admit that the government has been guilty of the most serious collective misjudgment in modern political history. Everyone would be implicated. None could claim they had chosen in ignorance. After all, Mr Brown had been chancellor and rival to Mr Blair for a decade. His manifest weaknesses, as well as his strengths, were known.
Then there is the small question of the succession. David Miliband, the youthful foreign secretary, would seem the obvious choice. But there are those who say that Jack Straw, the rather more mature justice secretary, would make a good “caretaker” leader. Why would voters back a “caretaker” in a general election? Then there are those who muse that Harriet Harman, the deputy party leader, might be the right choice. Enough, I think, said.
This is a story full of contradictions. Among the prime minister’s loudest critics are the leaders of Britain’s remaining trade unions. You know, the ones who could not wait for Mr Blair to depart. They want Mr Brown to lurch leftwards, to recapture, in a favourite phrase, his party’s core vote.
These union leaders, who have long presided over a cataclysmic fall in their own “core votes”, remind me of nothing so much as the swivel-eyed Conservatives who assailed John Major’s government during the 1990s. Mr Major’s most vocal Tory opponents thought salvation lay in moving ever further to the right. They got their way after the party’s 1997 defeat. It has taken a decade in the wilderness and Mr Cameron’s leadership for the Conservatives to relearn the basic rule that British voters do not much like political extremists.
The Labour modernisers make a better case against Mr Brown. Granted, he cannot be blamed for the credit crunch or rising fuel and food prices. But he has compounded the problems by failing to set a clear strategic direction. One lesson he should have taken from Mr Blair is that governments need momentum. Another, that to sustain its coalition Labour must be as attuned to the aspirations of the not-so-badly-off as it is attentive to the need for fairness. Both have been largely ignored.
There is a precedent, of course, for an autumn coup against a sitting Labour prime minister. Mr Brown’s supporters led one against Mr Blair in September 2006, forcing him to bring forward the date for his departure. Something similar may happen this year, if enough ministers and MPs decide they have nothing to lose from a second act of regicide. One thing, though, is certain. If Mr Brown is in big trouble, so is his party.
More columns at www.ft.com/stephens