One ever-present topic of political betting conversation is to speculate on when Gordon Brown might stand down. There are direct markets on this (on SPIN, Betfair and the mainstream bookies) and indirectly this question influences other markets, such as the "next Prime Minister" markets. In this post, I am going to concentrate on the Betfair market, on which you can bet by quarter on when Gordon Brown will cease to be leader of the Labour party. The favourite is for Gordon Brown to cease being leader of the Labour party in April to June 2010. Is that right?
There are effectively three possibilities: Gordon Brown stands down or is replaced before the next election; Gordon Brown stands down following the election; Gordon Brown does not stand down in the timeframe.
Before the election
Perhaps the most telling indication of Gordon Brown's failure as a leader is that it is those posters and commentators who are not irredeemably opposed to Labour who are keenest to see him replaced. Conservative posters and commentators in particular are eager to see him in place for the election. Labour loyalists who are also loyal to Gordon Brown are very few and far between. In the press, only Mary Riddell in the Telegraph seems to be truly loyal to Gordon Brown.
That in turn would suggest that Gordon Brown should be very vulnerable. There are two danger points for him: the party conference and early in the New Year with equal dangers of both.But for all that logic dictates that he should be replaced, I think that he will survive to fight the election, for the following reasons:
1) No one has the cullions
This could more politely be labelled loyalty. But the great and the good had a gilt-edged opportunity to push Gordon Brown out of the door in June when James Purnell resigned. Either Alan Johnson or David Miliband could have ensured this. Both declined to do so. There is no obvious reason why they should act now when they failed to act then. They have both missed their best chance.
2) The prisoners' dilemma
Indeed, it gets worse. While either could have acted in June without much blame attaching to them - they would have been seen as taking the tide at the flood rather than orchestrating the coup - any move now by either David Miliband or Alan Johnson will be seen as a leadership bid. If David Miliband acts, Alan Johnson probably gets the job. If Alan Johnson acts, David Miliband probably gets the job.
Alistair Darling is in a separate category since he doesn't have leadership ambitions, so far as anyone can tell. I can imagine him resigning if he thought it best for party and country, and bringing Gordon Brown down. There is no obvious reason to expect him to do so now, however.
3) The fear of something worse
The Cabinet may fear that they will head for certain defeat under Gordon Brown. But it could be even worse if the Labour party disintegrates into internal faction-fighting in advance of an election. There would surely have to be a contested election this time. It would be a brave man or woman who predicted that would pass without incident between the candidates or their proxies.
4) Peter Mandelson
Following the failed June coup, Peter Mandelson has secured for himself a position of unparalleled influence for a senior minister. Except in the unlikely event that he himself became the next Prime Minister, he will lose that position under any successor of Gordon Brown's. This means that any plotters will need either to win Peter Mandelson round (good luck with that task) or fight against him as well as Gordon Brown. I expect that Peter Mandelson would fight, fight and fight again to save the position he loves.
It follows that I see Gordon Brown stepping down before the next election only if he decides to do so of his own free will (and Peter Mandelson fails to persuade him to stay in office). If he does so, again I expect it will be at either the party conference or early in the New Year, with equal probabilities of both.
Someone clearly agrees with my conclusions, if not my logic. The "Brown days" market on SPIN has jumped sharply in the last week, suggesting that someone thinks that the odds of Gordon Brown going early have dropped markedly.
The next election
There is a subsidiary question wrapped up in this, which is when the next election will be. This post is going to be long enough, so I won't go into all those whys and wherefores, but May 2010 is the heavy favourite and in my view justly so. The rest of this post assumes that the election is in May 2010 except where explicitly stated otherwise.
Of course, Gordon Brown might win the election. Don't laugh. It's not impossible. "Winning" in this context includes Labour being the largest party in a hung Parliament. In those circumstances, Gordon Brown is almost certainly safe for the rest of the year.
While it must not be discounted, I do not place great credence on this, seeing it as much more likely that Labour will either lose or lose badly. What then?
At this point, it is important to look at the terms of the bet on Betfair. I place a high probability on Gordon Brown announcing that he is stepping down on election night if Labour lose, just as John Major did. However, the Betfair bet pays out when he ceases to lead the Labour party, not when he announces his departure. This means that the Labour party electoral timetable and Gordon Brown’s chosen date of departure are the critical elements.
I regard it as unlikely that he will immediately hand over to Harriet Harman on an interim basis. Gordon Brown would be the first former Prime Minister since the second world war to step down so abruptly after an election defeat. Even John Major served as Leader of the Opposition for a few weeks. No leader of the Opposition since the second world war has stepped down abruptly after electoral defeat either.
Gordon Brown would have an eye to his legacy and would not want to be seen to be letting the party down after leading it to defeat. Even if he decided to hand over - my expectation - I personally doubt that he would do so in a rush. He would recall that Michael Howard’s much delayed replacement was rather successful for the Tories and that Michael Howard received favourable press for how he handled it. I expect Gordon Brown would stay in office until the next party conference at the earliest and possibly longer.
If Gordon Brown announces on election night that he is standing down at the party conference, will angry Labour MPs come with pitchforks to get rid of him sooner? I simply can’t see it. Why start internecine warfare about someone who is already political history?
Even if I am wrong, if Labour lose in a May election next year, my expectation is that he’ll stay in office at least until a leadership election is held. The candidates will need to secure nominations from MPs and that will surely mean Parliament will need to sit and new MPs will need to be canvassed. Won’t that take him into July at the very earliest?
Consider this timetable: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6457597.stm
The most likely election date is 6 May 2010. Hypothetically, Gordon Brown announces that he will stand down in the early hours of 7 May 2010. (Tony Blair announced his resignation on 10 May 2007). Looking at this timetable, that would suggest that Gordon Brown would eventually step down before the end of June 2010. However, Parliament would (I think) only return on 13 May 2010. Nominations could not close too quickly after Parliament's return, since Labour MPs would want to time to discuss properly among each other who they would nominate and candidates would want the chance to canvass the nominating electorate. I suggest that the very earliest that nominations could close is 20 May 2010, and given that there will be some new Labour MPs who would need more time than the old lags to make up their mind, I suggest that 27 May 2010 is at least as likely. In that case, Gordon Brown would step down on 1 July 2010 if the same timetable is followed - ie, Q3. Now, you may disagree with me that extending the timetable in this way is likely. But some probability must be ascribed to it and it doesn't seem that negligible to me.
I regard the chances of Gordon Brown leaving office as party leader in April-June 2010 as substantially overstated.
In my view, it is likely to occur only if:
(1) Labour suffered an election defeat in a March election and Gordon Brown decides to stand down immediately;
(2) Gordon Brown resigns with immediate effect on election night; or
(3) Gordon Brown resigns and the Labour party electoral timetable is set in motion without delay.
The third of these is the most substantial possibility to my mind, and I place no more than a 1 in 4 chance of this outcome coming to pass. The single most likely possibility in my mind is that Gordon Brown would step down at the next party conference. If that is in September, that makes Q3 2010 a clear favourite in my mind and the Betfair prices look very tempting. I have been participating when the prices looked particularly good. My view is that the prices for Q2 2010 are simply wrong.I have had the courage of my own convictions and also factored the optimal Labour course of action into my betting. My current position therefore is to lay Apr-Jun 2010 and to back later periods at the right price. I am therefore light green for periods up to and including Jan-Mar 2010, deep red for Apr-Jun 2010 and deep green thereafter.
I look forward to being told just exactly how I've got this completely wrong. But as the title of this piece suggests, Gordon Brown is in far greater control of the date when he ultimately stands down as leader of the Labour party than is commonly appreciated - he controls the date of his resignation, the date of the election, the decision whether to remain as interim leader. Anyone who doesn't factor all of this into their thinking is taking a big risk.