Losers and schmoozers

9 Jun 06
DAVID LIPSEY | The vice-presidency of the United States is famously not worth a bucket of warm spit. So what is the deputy leadership of the Labour Party worth?

The vice-presidency of the United States is famously not worth a bucket of warm spit. So what is the deputy leadership of the Labour Party worth?

The deputy leadership is a job for losers. It has served as a poor consolation prize for Labour politicians defeated for the leadership. George Brown got it for losing to Harold Wilson. Michael Foot got it for losing to Jim Callaghan. Denis Healey got it for losing to Michael Foot, Roy Hattersley for losing to Neil Kinnock, John Prescott for losing to Tony Blair. You get the picture.

Twelve deputy leaders have come and 11 gone since one, Clement Attlee, became the permanent leader of the party (though Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, takes pride that she was leader in the interim between John Smith dying and Tony Blair succeeding).

The job is worth even less than it used to be. For the party now has a chair, bouncing baby Blairite Hazel Blears if you missed it in the reshuffle. The deputy leader’s job of keeping the party happy now resides with her as well as with Prescott.

Yet before the keys of Dorneywood had been wrestled from his grasp, and with Prescott still determined there should be no vacancy, the contenders were lining up.

Alan Johnson, flavour of the month among the political commentators, declared. So, sort of, did Harriet Harman, whom those with long memories will recall was once a Cabinet minister.

Peter Hain, who has long been believed to fancy the job, was pondering. With a field of that size even before the job is going, who knows how many will run if and when Prescott eventually goes?

Each of the potential candidates has an image for the job. Johnson, for example, besides being that rarity in Blair’s Cabinet — a man of working-class origins — is a trade unionist, though one perhaps more highly rated by his new colleagues than his old ones. Harman, there’s no denying it, is a woman. Hain, once a Liberal, now presents as a Leftie. Jack Straw is Mr Experience.

The candidates of course have every right to press their claims. This is politics and running for things is one of the things that politics is about.

Nevertheless, a deputy leadership contest at this stage is hardly what Labour needs. For the choice of deputy leader should above all depend on who is leader. Amorphous as the job is, the only requisite quality is that its occupant should provide some balance on the leadership ticket. To change deputy leader before changing leader would be to put the cart before the horse.

As deputy to Blair, of course Prescott is ideal. He is of the romantic Left. He looks like a man of the people. He is loyal. No-one thinks he could be prime minister so he is no threat. The silly snobbery aimed at his syntax too easily blinds the outside world to his virtues — including a bigger brain than he is generally given credit for.

You would think that those qualifications would disappear under Brown. Indeed, the assumption has long been that, on the day Blair retires, Prescott too will go.

Yet there have been indications that, if he survives the present storm, Brown might not be displeased if Prescott became his deputy, too. From Brown’s point of view, Prescott of course has the virtues that appeal to Blair.

But he has an even more important virtue: that he is none of the above candidates. Prescott, whether or not you think he is a figure of fun, is no longer after promotion, publicity or plotting. The same could not be said so confidently of other candidates.

Brown may of course not have the option of keeping Prescott. In the croquet of politics, Prescott is liable at any moment to be despatched into the flower beds. But if that does not happen, it makes sense for Labour in general and Brown in particular to leave the options open.

If anyone can deliver a smooth transition, it is Prescott. He is more likely to do so if he sees something in it for him.

Equally, no-one knows how long it will be before Blair is prised out of Downing Street. The longer the delay, the greater the possibility of a leadership contest, perhaps a bitter one. And if there is a bitter contest, Brown might like to have available the option taken by so many of his predecessors — to offer the deputy leadership as a consolation prize to the defeated candidate.

With Prescott gone, and if one of the declared runners for the deputyship is installed, that will probably not be an option. So it will not only have been Blair who was hoping, this week, that Prescott hangs in there.

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