Sunday, January 20, 2008

Hain's departure could strengthen Brown

Column published in the Newcastle Journal on 19 January, 2007.


Anyone who has followed this column for any length of time will know by now that I take the view that very little of what happens in politics is historically inevitable.

Contrary to those who would have us believe that everything is pre-ordained, the world is full of “what ifs?” which could have caused everything to turn out differently.

Margaret Thatcher may have come to dominate her era – but had it not been for Jim Callaghan’s tactical blundering in the autumn of 1978, the Iron Lady might never even have made it to Number 10.

Later, Tony Blair would be Prime Minister for almost as long – but had John Smith not dropped dead one morning in May 1994, New Labour might have forever remained just a twinkle in Peter Mandelson’s eye.

So to begin with this week, here’s a slice of counterfactual history. It is 2003, and former Leader of the Commons Robin Cook has just stood up to make a personal statement in the House following his resignation over the plans to invade Iraq.

Mr Cook is just getting into his formidable stride when, suddenly, journalists and MPs alike are startled to see the Welsh Secretary, Peter Hain, slip onto the backbenches alongside him.

Outside the Chamber afterwards, Mr Hain confirms to camera crews in Central Lobby that he, too, has resigned from the Cabinet in protest at Mr Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion.

The twin resignation rocks the government to its foundations, and although Mr Blair narrowly survives, Messrs Cook and Hain increasingly come to be seen as the moral conscience of the Labour movement.

Fast forward to the summer of 2005, and Mr Cook’s sudden death while out walking in the Scottish Highlands leaves Mr Hain as the undisputed leader of Labour’s anti-war left.

His principled opposition to the disastrous conflict, coupled with his brave stance against apartheid in the 70s, has made him a hero for many, and he is increasingly spoken of as a potential challenger for the leadership when Mr Blair stands down.

Sure enough, in June 2007, the 56-year-old Neath MP announces to rapturous applause from party activists that he will take on Gordon Brown for the Labour crown.

After a titanic struggle for the soul of the party, Mr Brown prevails. But Mr Hain has too much support in the party to be sidelined, and is rewarded with the plum job of Foreign Secretary and effective Cabinet Number Two.

Far-fetched? Well, perhaps no more so than a minister spending £200,000 of someone else’s money pursuing the most worthless job in British politics only to come fifth behind Harriet Harman.

But what this little story hopefully illustrates is that, for Mr Hain, his problems began long before it emerged that he had failed to fill in his campaign returns properly.

What finished him was not so much that, as the realisation that this one-time radical idealist had ended up compromising every radical ideal he ever held in order to keep his backside on a ministerial chair.

The upshot was a loss of credibility within the party, the extent of which only finally became clear following his dismal performance in last summer’s deputy leadership contest.

In the light of that result, it was a rather magnanimous gesture on Mr Brown’s part to keep Mr Hain in the Cabinet at all, albeit in the middle-ranking post of Work and Pensions Secretary.

To be fair, he has since gone on to win one small but important victory in that role, overcoming Treasury objections to secure a £725m rescue package for 125,000 workers who lost pension rights when their employers went bust.

But the truth is that ever since the deputy leadership debacle, Mr Hain has been living on borrowed political time.

Even if the row over his campaign funding not occurred, he was already seen as a likely casualty of the next reshuffle, and this appears now to have escalated into a racing certainty.

If anyone is in any doubt about this, he or she should make a careful study of the Prime Minister’s words on the subject in a week in which he has twice effectively hung Mr Hain out to dry.

On Monday, he gave an interview in which he said that while he had full confidence in his Cabinet colleague, his future was “out of his hands.”

Later in the week, he said that while Mr Hain had done a good job overall, he had been guilty of “an incompetence” in failing to file his campaign returns – a careful distinction likely to remain lost on Labour’s opponents.

If this is what passes for a vote of confidence in Mr Brown’s eyes, remind me never to go tiger-shooting with him.

The Prime Minister would have done better, in my view, to have acted more decisively and used the departure of Mr Hain as an opportunity to strengthen his beleaguered administration.

Firstly, it would have freed up a Cabinet berth for Darlington MP Alan Milburn, bringing much-needed fresh thinking into the government and enabling Mr Brown to stage a public rapprochement with the Blairites.

Secondly, it would have created an opening for a long-overdue structural reshuffle, combining the territorial Cabinet posts under a single Department for Devolved Affairs.

Why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still need a Cabinet minister each when they all now have their own elected First Ministers is not just beyond me but many other observers besides.

What of the bigger picture? Has the ongoing controversy over Mr Hain blown Gordon’s much-vaunted New Year “relaunch” off-course?

Well, maybe - although the looming question of whether or not to nationalise Northern Rock is probably giving the Prime Minister many more sleepless nights.

But that said, Mr Brown seemed at last this week to be finding his feet at Prime Minister’s Questions, putting David Cameron on the defensive over his own shifts in policy towards the Rock.

Maybe he’s starting to like the job a bit more. Or maybe he was just enjoying the fact that, for once, the focus of attention was elsewhere.

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