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Has the Speaker saved Brown’s bacon?

May 24th, 2009

martin-pointing

Will the election for Speaker prevent a Leadership contest?

Michael Martin. Remember him? He used to be Speaker of the House of Commons until he resigned last week. Except of course he didn’t: he’s still there, forgotten but not gone. All he announced was that he would be resigning on June 21.

There are some perfectly good reasons for having a delay of four weeks. For one thing, it allows members the opportunity to discuss potential candidates and to give those people the chance to take soundings about their chances. It would do them no favours to launch into an ill-prepared and embarrassingly poorly supported campaign.

For another, it will (probably) let the expenses scandal run its course. There surely can’t be four more weeks of cases in the story? Assuming that there aren’t, and that one of the most important tasks the new Speaker has to get to grips with is an overhaul of at least the expenses system, those who are implicated in wrongdoing or morally dubious behaviour will have been weeded out before the election takes place and so not compromised before they even begin.

The delay in his resignation may, however, serve a third purpose, intended or not. The polls all point to the local and European elections being very tough for Labour. The expenses scandal has taken the edge off the Conservative figures too but while that should be a reminder to David Cameron and CCHQ not to get complacent, for Gordon Brown the elections are part of a battle for survival.

The pressure on Brown is likely to be greatest in the week following the election counts, in early to mid June. Either the pressure and momentum for change will be overwhelming or it will slowly start to dissipate. That, however, is also the time when MP’s will be focussing on who’ll be replacing Martin in the Speaker’s chair – and the Labour MP’s are critical in the process: they provide the candidates and nominees.

While there’s no procedural or logistical impediment to the two elections running side-by-side (no individuals could credibly stand for both whether or not they‘re simultaneous), it is always harder to launch one campaign while others are going on. There is the temptation to wait to find out the result and the consequences of it and candidates do not want their campaigns to be overshadowed or electors distracted. It’s easier to do one thing at a time.

If the election for Speaker does buy Brown some breathing space, that may be enough. The Speakership story will of itself break any ongoing narrative about Brown under pressure (unless he’s silly enough to be seen to get involved backing a losing candidate to replace Martin). To regain momentum will not be easy, especially with MP’s departing Westminster for their Summer recess shortly afterwards.

It is far easier to plot when everyone is together. Not only can MP’s find out what their friends are thinking, they can more readily assess what their opponents are thinking, and what the relative strengths of different factions are. Effective plotting requires a reasonable expectation of success. When MP’s cannot gauge their strength, they cannot know whether they’re likely to be successful or not, and that will be enough for those who wish to prevent plots from reaching fruition.

If the election for the Speakership makes a Labour leadership contest less likely, that should impact on various markets. Apart from the obvious ones such as which leaders will head their respective party into the election, the absence of a new leader (and consequently any honeymoon period and associated bounce) surely makes an Autumn 2009 election less likely. If Brown is there for the duration of the parliament, that will also affect the likely next Labour leader, with Straw and Johnson very unlikely and Harman’s prospects much reduced.

Brown is not yet out of the woods, although if he can get to the recess safely, he probably will be. The timing of Martin’s departure and the election for his replacement provide him with some cover in that journey. Will it be enough? Time will tell.

David Herdson

 






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