Is Gordon so desperate he's about to recruit Alastair Campbell?

Last updated at 21:48 07 December 2007


Never have I known the House of Commons in a mood like this. Ministers are hollow-eyed and drained. Nothing of importance takes place. On two nights last week, the Government announced a one-line whip, signalling that the business of the day was of such low importance that MPs might as well go home.

Labour backbenchers are listless, panicky and some are even beginning to discuss ways of replacing Gordon Brown.

This talk may be premature, but it is not without menace: many Labour MPs now believe that it is inevitable, barring change at the top, that they will lose their seats at the next General Election.

They are incredulous that the Labour Party is now the subject of three separate and concurrent police investigations.

One centres in Scotland, where the position of Wendy Alexander, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, looks indefensible after accepting a £950 donation from a tax exile.

Another is in the North of England and involves potential connections between party donations and the granting of permission for property developments.

Gordon Brown

The third concerns Labour's criminal decision to hide donations by the businessman David Abrahams from the electoral commission.

It is now clear that the Labour Party Gordon Brown inherited from Tony Blair was a criminal organisation which considered itself outside the scope of the law.

All this week, the Prime Minister has been fighting to distract attention from the party's disgrace.

On Monday, in a clumsy manoeuvre, ministers brought forward the announcement of a plan to boost cancer care. This went off at half cock and Downing Street tried again to boost its profile by accelerating a plan to curb overcrowding in jails with the creation of three new 'super-prisons'.

This announcement came from the Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who has emerged in recent weeks as the most significant Cabinet supporter of the embattled Prime Minister. Yet it also failed to make headway. And so, on Wednesday, in a discreditable exercise which reflects exceptionally badly on all concerned, ministers played the terror card.

Ever since he launched his campaign for the Labour leadership last spring, Gordon Brown has consistently tried to use the controversial issue of detention without trial for terror suspects as a political tool.

His support for an extension of the 28-day detention limit is based on the cynical calculation that it would make him look strong, and his Conservative and LibDem opponents appear weak. Indeed, he wanted to put the measure at the heart of the General Election campaign he originally planned for the autumn.

Having aborted the election, he has now dusted down the proposal in an attempt to bury the bad news of the Labour funding scandals.

The decision reveals a fascinating side to his character. Within hours of being elected Labour leader, he phoned David Cameron and pledged to work through consensus on this deeply inflammatory subject. But the Tory leader has heard nothing from Gordon Brown on this issue.

Instead, details of the new 42-day plan were leaked by the Government to the Murdoch press. Parliament - and the opposition parties - were informed only later, and as an afterthought. This shows that Gordon Brown's famous pledge to make important announcements to Parliament first, and then to the media, was disingenuous.

Instead of the promise of crossparty consultation, Gordon Brown sought electoral advantage from the terror threat. This is the very lowest kind of politics.

Nevertheless, I still believe that the Prime Minister is a fundamentally decent man. He was behaving out of character because he is in desperate straits. He has been reeling from one blow to another ever since his failure of nerve two months ago over whether to call a General Election.

Gordon Brown needs the Christmas holidays rather like a boxer who has taken a terrible thumping needs the bell - so that he can get patched up, confer with lieutenants and regain his strength.

I am told that he is now relying on the New Year for a relaunch. Downing Street sources say that he is planning a series of regional tours to connect him better with the country. The possibility of a Cabinet reshuffle is being discussed.

Also, the Prime Minister is eager to mend relations with supporters of Tony Blair. These have become strained with his predecessor's former head of strategy, Matthew Taylor, publicly attacking the Government's reaction to the donor crisis.

Blairite former Health Secretary Alan Milburn has expressed his gloom about Gordon Brown's failure of vision. Indeed, Milburn is just one of a group of senior ex-ministers who can barely conceal their despair at what former Home Secretary Charles Clarke sardonically calls 'the current state of affairs'.

Tony Blair himself has been publicly silent, refusing to cast a verdict - one way or another - on the Brown premiership. However, in private he is more eloquent. At one recent social event, I am informed he referred to the inner circle around Gordon Brown as 'the B-Team'.

The Prime Minister knows that John Major's government was ruined by sniping from supporters of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. He does not want to suffer the same fate himself. So he is eager to seek a rapprochement with Tony Blair and his allies.

There is now lively talk inside Downing Street that Alastair Campbell might be brought back in a senior strategic role in the New Year and, apparently, there are indications that Blair's controversial former Press Secretary would welcome such a role.

More striking still, I am assured that Cherie Blair is now certain to receive a peerage. Of course, there are precedents for such a move - after all, Denis Thatcher was given a baronetcy by John Major.

It would also demonstrate that Gordon Brown is ready to lay old enmities to rest as he seeks to re-forge his battered premiership.

The Prime Minister remains a formidable and highly intelligent politician. He has the wisdom to understand that there is no point in alienating the supporters of Tony Blair. Once he pulls his team together, he can start to hit back brutally at David Cameron.

The Conservatives have benefited from recent evidence of Labour wrongdoing and criminality. But - as Cameron himself hinted in a private Commons meeting with his MPs last week - the Tories have yet to establish themselves fully as a credible alternative party of government.

This failure means that Gordon Brown has the space to recapture the political agenda, and that is the task that awaits him when he returns from his badly needed Christmas break.

Rich get even richer over Africa

So far, coverage of this weekend's meeting between European and African leaders has concentrated on Gordon Brown's admirable decision not to rub shoulders with Robert Mugabe.

There is, however, an even greater scandal than the presence of the murderous Zimbabwean dictator at the heart of events in Lisbon this weekend.

European countries are intent on imposing a trade agreement on African countries that will shatter the livelihoods of millions of the continent's farmers - while making European producers even richer.

Scandalously, Europe is driving through these measures on our former colonies while keeping the wretched Common Agricultural Policy which feather-beds European farmers.

This means that Europe will be able to trade not just on equal, but actually on favourable, terms with Africa. For example, subsidised Kerrygold butter will compete with unsubsidised South African dairy farmers.

Any hope of African businesses being able to grow and expand will thus be wrecked, leaving the continent more dependent than ever on aid.

This morally disgusting behaviour is being supported, through the EU, by the British Government. It puts all of us to shame.

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