Just what will happen to Gordon Brown if he wake up on 7 May to find we have voted for a hung parliament, with Labour holding the largest number of seats. That is the question John Rentoul turns to this morning:
If Labour is the largest party in the House of Commons, then it is almost inevitable that Gordon Brown will stay as Prime Minister.
An inconclusive election result would now look like some kind of moral victory for Brown.
That really is a bridge too far. If Labour is the largest party it will due to Cameron’s failure, rather than anything Brown has achieved.
So, if Labour is the largest party, Brown could offer Clegg a deal. Already, Labour offers the Lib Dems the Alternative Vote – a limited electoral reform that would give the Lib Dems significantly more seats. Because it will be in Labour's manifesto, Brown should be able to deliver his MPs.
Will he? How can that be known this side of the election?
He could offer Clegg a two-year agreed recovery programme, given that the parties are close on economic policy. Does anyone doubt that, if necessary to keep him in office, Brown would also offer Vince Cable the post of Chancellor?
Ed Balls, for one, would have doubts about this course of action. Besides, how does having Cable on board help Brown with his plans for the succession?
Now we get to John’s fundamental point:
Clegg has discussed with his colleagues the option of making Lib Dem support conditional on Labour changing its leader. It has proved hard enough for Labour MPs to decide for themselves to get rid of Brown; making the change at the behest of a rival party would be even harder.
Would it? If Labour had to change its leader to remain in office, it should be easier “to get rid of Brown”. Moreover, it’s highly unlikely that Mandelson would protect him in such circumstances.
Let’s go back a few weeks to John’s column of 21 February:
Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, might be a player….he might be interested in the more immediate challenge of multi-party politics. It cannot hurt that he has recently repeated his support for proportional representation.
On his blog a couple of days later:
I yield to no one in my admiration of the Foreign Secretary, but I also yield to public opinion, which is as yet not wholly persuaded of his potential. And I think that Johnson is in a strong position to find common ground with the Liberal Democrats.
Then, he welcomes a new recruit to the AJ4PM campaign:
A big welcome, please, to Andrew Rawnsley:
Some of his [Nick Clegg's] most senior colleagues believe they would be crucified by much of the media and subsequently immolated by the voters if they try to sustain Gordon Brown in office after he had been rejected by the country. There is interest in the idea, first floated in this space some months ago, of sustaining a Labour government on condition that there was a new prime minister. Step forward, say, Alan Johnson with his long-term commitment to changing the voting system.
Mr Johnson is consolidating his reputation as an unlucky minister. But then, that is the way of home secretaries – much as it is the way of future leaders of the Labour party.
Finally, let’s go back to 1974. It could be agued that if Heath, another unpopular leader, had stood down the Tories would have been able to remain in power under someone else.
Alan Johnson would be acceptable to the Lib Dems, rather than Brown, if Labour were to hold the largest number of seats.
Brown’s removal would make it far easier for David Miliband to eventually succeed or become leader of the Labour party at the same time Johnson become Prime Minister under an arrangement with the Lib Dems.