John Hutton was right: Gordon has been ‘a fucking disaster’. But who else was there?

by Stephen Tall on December 23, 2009

At long last, what was widely known in Westminster Village circles has rippled out beyond: John Hutton was the cabinet minister who told the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson in 2006 that Gordon Brown would be ‘a fucking disaster’ in the role of prime minister. Well done to BBC Radio 4’s Eddie Mair for wringing the admission from a reluctant Mr Hutton.

But it prompts two questions.

First, if this was Mr Hutton’s view – albeit one from which he has subsequently resiled, in public at any rate – why did he choose to become one of the 308 Labour MPs who signed Mr Brown’s leadership nomination papers, and in the process deprive the party of the contest it needed and deserved? It’s hard to escape the conclusion Mr Hutton acted out of a mixture of ambition and cowardice: the ambition to remain within the cabinet, the cowardice not to challenge Mr Brown himself or at least to support a putative challenger. For this reason, I find it hard to concur with the Spectator’s awarding of the title of New Labour hero to Mr Hutton.

The second question, though, is this: who else could Mr Hutton have supported if he had decided to put his money where his mouth is, and openly support a leadership contest? As it was, the only Labour MP who threw down the gauntlet was the left-wing Campaign Group candidate, John McDonnell: an honourable figure, but never a serious threat.

There were only two genuinely plausible alternatives at the time: David Miliband and John Reid. The very best that can be said of Mr Miliband’s leadersip credentials two years later is that the case is not proven. As for Dr Reid – who chose chairing Celtic over staying in the cabinet – I have a hunch that the Labour party would be in a stronger position today with him at its helm; but the UK would be a more fearful, authoritarian and dismal country.

This year has seen Gordon Brown deemed safe as leader of the Labour party – not because anybody thinks he’s much good at the job, but because no-one can agree that anyone else would be better. And if you look at today’s cabinet it’s hard to disagree. Yes, there are individuals who, with only a little stretch of the imagination, it’s possible to conceive of as leader of the opposition (Ed Miliband, James Purnell, Andy Burnham). But Prime Minister? Not so much.

This is the opposite problem to the one which kept Tony Blair safe as Prime Minister. There were occasions, most notably in 2004 and 2006, when Mr Blair might have been toppled: he wasn’t because the Labour cabinet knew Gordon Brown would take his place, and far too many of their number – the people who knew Mr Brown best – feared the consequences of his becoming ‘a fucking disaster’ of a Premier. Better to stick with Mr Blair, they reckoned, than subject themselves prematurely to the leadership of their ‘psychologically flawed’ colleague.

Labour sorely lacks big political figures today. When the history of the New Labour Government comes to be written – which will be sooner rather than later – the names which will figure large mostly pre-date Mr Brown’s tenure: Tony Blair, John Prescott, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar, David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Claire Short, Derry Irvine, Mo Mowlam, John Reid; only Jack Straw, and latterly Peter Mandelson, straddle both eras.

Just look at the current cabinet: medicore and lacklustre doesn’t even begin to cover it. The reason Mr Brown has survived as Prime Minister is the reason Labour will be defeated next year.