The Prime Minister was in the West Midlands on Friday, licking the wounds of Labour’s by-election defeat in Glasgow and attempting to rally the party faithful. Political Editor Jonathan Walker analyses the difficulties facing Gordon Brown.
To hear Gordon Brown speak at Warwick University, you’d think it was business as usual. Glasgow East, previously loyal to Labour for 60 years, had just returned an SNP MP in a humiliating by-election defeat for Labour.
But there was barely a mention of this in Mr Brown’s speech. He thanked the unsuccessful Labour candidate early on - and swiftly turned to other matters.
Within two hours, the Prime Minister received a sharp wake up call from one of Britain’s biggest trade unions.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, one of Britain’s biggest trade unions, called for a leadership election. What Mr Kenny seems to have in mind is for Mr Brown to follow the example set by former Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1995, when he resigned as party leader to allow his critics to mount a challenge.
It was a gamble 11 years ago, but one that seemed to pay off when Mr Major won his contest and retained the leadership. But, of course, the Tories went on to lose a general election two years later in a devastating Labour landslide, and they have only just recovered.
For some Labour MPs, this is the real fear - not just that their party could be headed for a General Election defeat, but that they will struggle to pick up the pieces afterwards.
One said: “We have got to stop thinking about a fourth term and start thinking about the survival of the Labour Party.”
Labour’s precarious position has even opened up old wounds which most people thought had been healed.
The widely-predicted battle between the Blairites and the Brownites has yet to emerge. But what nobody foresaw was the return of Labour’s traditional conflict between the left, and a right-wing leadership.
New Labour has always had critics within the party, of course. But they were powerless.
And union leaders, however angry they were about “privatisation” of public services or other Government policies, were usually willing to be brought to heel.
Tony Blair struck a deal with unions at Labour’s first national policy forum, also at Warwick, in 2005.
But something has changed. The unions sense that Labour - their party - is in trouble, and they want to do something about it. Their solution is to shift to the left, with measures including a relaxation of labour to laws to make it easier to take strike action.
Hence, Mr Brown was forced to tell his audience at Warwick that there will be no “going back to the agenda of the ‘70s and the ‘80s”.
The philosophical basis of the New Labour project, which he developed alongside Tony Blair in the 1990s, and which provided Labour with three election victories, is now under threat.
Unions are even said to be demanding that the Prime Minister offer a Cabinet place to John Cruddas, the left-wing Labour MP who stood for the deputy leadership.
This muscle-flexing raises the possibility that moves to unseat Mr Brown could come not from backbenchers but from the “brothers”.
The Prime Minister was under pressure to deliver a speech at yesterday’s event in Coventry that would raise the spirits of miserable party activists and show the nation that he is still the right man to lead us.
It was an impressive performance in some ways, as he talked without any obvious notes, strolling the stage rather than hiding behind the podium, recalling David Cameron’s impressive party conference speech last year.
But while it offered a coherent and convincing analysis of the difficulties facing Britain today, it lacked a single big idea to explain to voters how the Government is going to help.
Perhaps the most memorable section came as Mr Brown warned of horrors to come if the Tories win an election in 24 months (effectively confirming there will be no poll until 2010).
The problem with this strategy is that voters no longer seem to be scared of the Tory bogeyman. It will take more than this to win back their support.