2000s >> 2005 >> no-1212-august-2005

Greasy Pole: The Outsider

The bookies would not have been overjoyed at the result of the election, seeing as the favourite came in with a clear lead over the rest of the field. The likes of William Hill had hardly had time to tot up their losses after Labour’s “historic” (as they keep reminding us) third successive victory than they had to get on with calculating the odds for the leadership contests of both the big parties. In the case of the Tories the outlook for the bookies is not so gloomy because there is likely to be quite a large field of runners, even if Territorial Army ex-SAS hero David Davis will probably be a narrow favourite. But the race for the Labour leadership promises to be more menacing, with Gordon Brown another odds-on favourite who will cost the bookies some money if he finally, after all those years of manoeuvring, in-fighting and hostile briefing, gets to stand smiling on the doorstep at Number Ten.

Except that, as Brown himself – and the bookies – know all too well, it is not that simple. In organisations like the Labour Party there are very, very few MPs who do not regard themselves as likely candidates for the leadership. To illustrate this point: when Tony Blair announced he would eventually hand over the reins the Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart played a cruel joke to expose the vanity lurking in the unlikeliest of breasts. He asked a low-ranking Labour minister, who does not have a shred of realistic hope of becoming his party’s leader, whether he should consider making himself available for nomination. At first the minister demurred but a little more flattery from Hoggart awakened his atrophied ambitions. He murmured that now he came to think of it he had recently been approached by quite a few MPs. Hoggart did not tell us what has happened to that hapless man in the reshuffle.

He may have found some consolation in history. When Anthony Eden resigned the Tory leadership in 1957 the front runner to take over was R A Butler and little attention was given to the chances of Harold Macmillan. But in the event all the energy Macmillan had expended over the years in seeing off his rivals brought him success. When Macmillan in his turn resigned in 1964 Butler was again a favourite for the succession, with Hailsham not so well fancied. But Alec Douglas-Home came from the back of the field to take the job. The Labour Party in the 1930s was led by George Lansbury , who at the party conference in 1935 won a standing ovation for his speech in a debate on the sanctions against Italy for the attack on Ethiopia. Lansbury’s speech was flavoured by phrases like “I am ready to stand as early christians did and say ‘This is our faith’” but he was emphatically defeated in the vote, which left him little choice but to resign. The main contenders for the job – the favourites – were Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood but they were beaten by Clement Attlee who, as the outsider, was rated as mousy and colourless but who turned out to be nothing like that when it came to doing the job of Prime Minister.

So who are the outside chances now, in the contest to replace Blair? Prominent among them is Dr. John Reid, MP for Airdrie and Shotts where, as the saying goes, they weigh the Labour votes rather than count them. What is Reid’s form as a leadership contender? By the standards of the Labour Party, it is pretty strong. In 1973 he joined the Communist Party and later CND but then went over to the Labour Party and a job as one of their research officers, followed by a stint as political adviser to Neil Kinnock – which, in view of Kinnock’s well-earned reputation for political blunders and electoral disasters, Reid would do well to gloss over. He got into Parliament in 1987, for Motherwell North which, through various changes of name, has been held by him ever since with never less than 61 per cent of the vote. His resignation from CND provoked approval from Julian Lewis, the famously combative right-wing Tory MP for New Forest East, who wrote to the Sunday Express in August 1999:

     “It is true that Dr. Reid was previously a nuclear disarmer, but it is also true that he
     was one of the first to recognise his mistake, and genuinely campaign for a
     sensible nuclear deterrent policy.
     “As a former professional anti-CND campaigner, I am ready enough to criticise
     unsuitable Labour appointees, but Dr. Reid does not fall into that category: he
     would be as good a Defence Secretary as any Labour government could provide.”

There is no record of whether Reid was embarrassed by back-slapping from such a quarter but he has developed a skin tough enough to survive in the notoriously ruthless relationships among the warring comrades of the Scottish Labour Party, where a popular slogan is “a long memory is much better than a good memory”. This was the setting for Reid’s burning antipathy towards Gordon Brown, dating from the early 1990s when Brown was chairman of Scottish Labour. It is that passion which is likely to drive him to oppose Brown in a leadership contest, winning votes as the “stop Brown” candidate.

When Labour won the 1997 election Reid’s talents (if that is the right word) were recognised in his appointment to a succession of high profile ministerial jobs until, in the reshuffle in May, he was placed as Defence Secretary. It was rumoured that he coveted Jack Straw’s job as Foreign Secretary but perhaps his notorious difficulty with the silkily diplomatic touch counted against him; or perhaps Straw sulked and simply refused to go. Another rumour had it that Defence is the job he always prized since it fitted his bellicose personality and anyway, in spite of his much-trumpeted humble origins, he loves taking the salute at military march pasts. A probable reason for his multiplicity of government jobs is that he is what is known as “a safe pair of hands”, which is a diplomat’s way of saying that he can be relied on unblinkingly to justify – in Parliament, the press, on TV – whatever the Blair government does, no matter how indefensible it is. His voting record is tediously obedient, including on cuts in funding benefits for lone parents and students, on means-tested Incapacity Benefit, on air strikes against Afghanistan and on the war against Iraq. That is how he earned a reputation as “Reid the Rottweiler” and “Teflon John”. Attentive fans of Jeremy Paxman will know that the TV interrogator weighed in by describing Reid as Blair’s “attack dog”, to which Reid responded, as would be expected from one of Her Majesty’s Secretaries of State, Privy Counsellor and trusted lieutenant of the Prime Minister, by calling Paxman “a West London wanker”.

Reid has consistently shown a readiness to reshape what he still, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, calls his principles in order to solidify his standing in the Labour Party. Of course he may change; there have been countless examples of leaders who have won power on one set of promises and have then outraged their supporters by performing a dramatic u-turn.  We know that with Reid anything is possible; there are practically no bounds to what he will say or do, within the confines of support for the capitalist system and its government. Without that ability he would not survive in the hurly-burly of politics. Anyone looking for a promising outsider for the Labour leadership race could do worse than lay a shrewd bet on the Rottweiler — soon, while the odds on him are so attractive.     

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