ME and Ophelia

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Why plot to oust Gordon Brown failed

The rebels switched from email to texts on a disposable mobile but bid to oust PM was doomed

At 3pm on Monday 8 June, 15 people met in an MP's office in the House of Commons to agree that, for the time being at least, the Hotmail Plot had failed.

Over eight days, the core team of the backbench rebel putsch to unseatGordon Brown had doubled from seven to 15. In that time, seven ministers had left the government, including a high flyer who had launched an explicit attack on the prime minister.

Brown had been forced to back down over a planned reshuffle, leaving in place people he'd really prefer to have moved. But, though he had to come to a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party cap in hand that night, he knew – and the rebels knew – he was safe.

So how did the plot collapse? It had been a tumultuous eight days since parliament had returned from recess. In that week a senior rebel understood that the communities secretary, Hazel Blears, was preparing to resign and the pair agreed to meet in the next few days; but Blears never confirmed.

Then, on Wednesday 3 June at 10.30am, less than 24 hours before polls opened for the local and European elections, Blears resigned. That move is now regarded as one of the most damaging blows to the effort to remove the prime minister – the moment it started to go wrong.

"Hazel's resignation turned people against us," one of the rebels said. "Even her supporters found the timing of her resignation difficult to stomach. Especially that brooch [which sported the legend 'Rocking the boat'].

"It enabled the whips to make the argument that we were undermining campaigners at that moment knocking on doors for the Labour party, and created a sense of incompetence that we never really escaped from."

Blears is still to explain the timing of her exit, but it was being pointed out that she was due to meet cabinet office officials at 3pm on the day of her eventual resignation for a further examination of her expenses – the departure allowed her to avoid what could have been another difficult confrontation over whether she should have paid capital gains tax or not.

The decision by Blears, a party loyalist to her fingertips and local activist in her heart, taken at such a sensitive point, probably reflects the widely held belief that Downing Street was using the expenses scandal to smear political opponents.

Whatever her motives, the rebels believe her resignation made a lot of the difference between getting 50 rebels to sign up to the plot, and the 70 they felt they needed.

Party rules say 71 MPs can force a contest if they all back the same candidate.

"The difference between getting 50 and the necessary 70 will be the disloyalty factor," one told the Guardian when the plot was in full swing. The Hotmail Plot — so called because of the email address,, which MPs were asked to sign up to, calling for Brown to go, remained undetected for days until the Guardian revealed it at noon, shortly after Blears had resigned.

By Wednesday evening, the covert tactic unravelled as thousands of emails arrived. Apart from the odd one from genuinely sympathetic MPs, spoofs, foreign emails, and junk emails flowed in.

One rebel said: "We got one email from [the email address of the chief whip]. It might be that they were hoping we'd publish a list and not notice his name was in it and then he could show all the names were ridiculous."

Instead, the rebels adopted a tactic favoured by organised criminals and bought an untraceable pay as you go mobile, encouraging sympathetic colleagues to get in touch that way. It became a text message plot.

One of the theories behind the covert backbench operation was that if they emerged without warning with a list of dozens of MPs from all wings of the party an unstoppable momentum would embolden disaffected cabinet members and drive the prime minister from office.

But by 6pm, six hours after the Guardian had broken news of the Hotmail Plot, the element of surprise was gone and the whips were in overdrive, terrifying potential rebels.

Nick Brown, the chief whip, produced names he said were involved in the plot. Some were inaccurate. The realpolitik of even being possibly associated with the plot was exemplified when a local news reporter rang one wrongly identified rebel, Paul Farrelly, at 2am to inform him they would be splashing on news of his disloyalty to the prime minister – the morning of polling day.

One cabinet minister due to meet a rebel for dinner had their meeting cancelled – there simply wasn't a restaurant in London discreet enough. Instead, that evening they would have the first of three phone calls. The cabinet minister was interested in the nature of names, irrespective of whether they had arrived by email, text or carrier pigeon.

On polling day, MPs were scattered around the country. But the rebels had to contend with three attacks – their timing, their lack of policy and their invisibility: were they left or right, usual suspects or unusual suspects?

That evening at 10pm events took another dramatic turn when James Purnell, the work and pensions secretary, announced he was leaving the cabinet. Had he been followed, the pressure may well have been too much for Brown. But the moment was something of a box of fireworks where only one went off: others who had been due to resign didn't.

Purnell caught the government by surprise, the news emerging in Sky television reports only moments after the man himself rang Number 10.

But then Lord Mandelson, already in Downing Street advising Brown on the reshuffle, sprang to work.

He rang potentially wavering cabinet ministers to check they would remain on board, including David Miliband, who they understood had grave doubts about Brown. The foreign secretary eventually said he would remain and Purnell was not immediately accompanied by others, until a chaotic resignation the next day by Caroline Flint, the Europe minister.

She left with a vicious attack on Brown's style hours after she had given a public display of loyalty. "You can put Hazel and Caroline's departure in the category of the Anarchic Departures," a rebel said.

This rebel regards Miliband's failure to resign as the moment the plot failed.

Throughout the saga, the left was mainly silent. Jon Cruddas, the influential backbencher, was taking calls from rebels trying to recruit him to the cause, and also from elements of the soft left persuading him not to be a "cheap date".

He told them he continued to consider his position but the next day he wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror which appeared to back Brown – though his aides sent corrective text messages afterwards saying that was not the gist of his piece.

At some point during the weekend, a rumour emerged that Brown had scheduled a meeting with the Queen – a rumour rebels attributed to Downing Street ("this isn't something I blame Brown for, it's what any Downing Street operation would do when the prime minister is under attack from backbenchers").

For wavering rebels terrified about losing their seat in an instant election, the rumour may have been enough.

On Sunday night, the European election results were truly terrible for Labour: Wales lost, Scotland lost, fifth in the south-east. Though Brown had Mandelson and Ed Balls with him in the Downing Street bunker they knew he was still vulnerable.

Around this time a supplementary counter-argument did the rounds to further upset those pro-European Labour MPs already licking their wounds: if there were to be a general election it would come before the Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty and the Tories would then truly be able to withdraw from Europe with great ease.

These were tactical counter-arguments made by a quick-witted government which the rebels should have foreseen. Though the invisibility of the plot was tacticaly clever, there were obvious flaws: there was a perception of being too rightwing; co-ordination with a disgruntled cabinet was poor; fear grew in the lower ranks of the parliamentary party that if a new leader was brought in a general election would simply have to be allowed.

The rebels knew they didn't have the numbers and decided to meet together, for the first time.

On Monday at 3pm the rebels met. All their info was collated on a five-page spreadsheet across which names, mobile phone numbers, "other telephone numbers" and personal non-parliamentary email addresses were set out horizontally along with the initials of the rebel MP who had brought them on board and vouched for them.

Zealots who wanted Brown out were given the number zero and those newly persuaded the number one. Zero zealots made up most of the first page; ones extended onto the second and together they came to 54. Short of the 71 crucial figure but over the 50 they had briefed journalists would trigger publication.

But they decided that evening to perform a u-turn and announced they would not go public.

All that was left to do was go to the parliamentary Labour party meeting. The rebels say the PLP assumed import mostly because of serendipity rather than the suitability of occasion, since it came at the end of the first Monday back after the European elections. PLPs are always intimidating affairs and though seven rebels spoke, including Charles Clarke and Fiona MacTaggart, the plot flopped.

But there were other categories on that spreadsheet. Number four indicated friends of Brown and category three were people whose opinions were not known.

The category that was by far the longest, stretching to about 120 was number two (yesterday one rebel rang to say: "I've just seen that two of our number twos have got jobs with the government. Patronage is a big problem for plots".) The number two denoted: "Possibles, if..."

The "If" being David Miliband, the foreign secretary. Something that many got wrong this week, including media commentators, is that the majority of Labour MPs on the list wanted Alan Johnson to take over. David Miliband would have been closer to the truth.

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 6/11/2009
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