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Cablegate: A Political Body Blow to Gordon Brown As Labour

DE RUEHLO #1939/01 2071145
O 251145Z JUL 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 LONDON 001939


EO 12958 DECL: 07/25/2018

Classified By: Political Counselor Rick Mills for reasons 1.4 (B) and ( D).

1. (C) Summary. The Scottish National Party’s 365 vote victory in yesterday’s Glasgow East by-election over Labour is another body blow to Gordon Brown’s political fortunes and, in the immediate aftermath, has fueled speculation that Brown could face a leadership challenge this fall, when MPs return to the Westminster Village from the summer break. A Labour MP and close advisor to Brown told us the morning after the vote that Brown will be “hunkering down” with his allies over the summer to fend off Labour party opponents, which Brown “can successfully do for now,” but the Glasgow result cannot be explained away as anything other than “a referendum on Labour” and Brown must react. This advisor said Brown has to use the summer vacation period, with MPs out of London, to develop a new political strategy. For now, in part because of the Parliamentary recess, a challenge to Brown’s leadership is not imminent, but the Glasgow defeat - the third Labour by-election loss since Brown took power -- might embolden his opponents to act in the fall if Brown cannot turn around Labour’s dismal political standing. End Summary.

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A Political Earthquake

2. (U) In what the winning Scottish National Party candidate called a “political earthquake,” Labour went down to an unanticipated defeat in yesterday’s Glasgow East by-election, coming in second to the SNP, 11,277 to 10,912. With a higher than expected voter turn out of 42 percent, SNP candidate John Mason’s victory over Labour’s Margaret Curran represents an astonishing 22 percent swing from the last general election in 2005, in what had been the Labour party’s 25th safest seat. The Conservatives came in third with 1,639, with the Liberal Democrats a distant fourth at 915 votes.

3. (C) Forsaking its traditional soapbox issue of Scottish independence, SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond personally spearheaded the party’s campaign, turning the by-election into a referendum on Brown and the Labour Party. Although Labour sent a collection of party heavyweights and Cabinet ministers to campaign for Curran, she could not overcome what appears to have been a lethal mix of Brown’s unpopularity, a strong SNP which benefited from Alex Salmond’s frequent appearances in the constituency, and voter frustration that the impoverished district has not benefited more from ten years of Labour rule in London. Labour’s attempts to market the by-election as a “local” -- in order to keep the focus off the Prime Minister -- went unnoticed. Nick Brown MP, a close advisor to Brown and his Deputy Labour Whip in the Commons, told Poloff the morning after the vote that “there are no quirks we can use to explain this defeat away” and the party has to see the vote as “a referendum on Labour -- that we lost.” For now, Labour party spokesmen sent out to speak publicly on the defeat, like DFID Secretary Douglas Alexander (a Scotsman himself), are repeating the now oft-heard Labor refrain that the party “will have to reflect long and hard on the results and try to understand the message” voters have sent.

The Winners

4. (C) The winner in yesterday’s election is clearly the SNP. The vote is an enormous boost for the party and its leader, Alex Salmond, who staked a considerable amount of personal prestige on the outcome -- visiting the district ten times during the campaign. The SNP presented the election as a chance to register a referendum on two governments - the SNP-led government in Hollyrood or the Labour government in Westminster, and the SNP can now claim victory. The party will have to be careful about not becoming too cocky, however, as the SNP’s signature issue, Scottish independence, was not highlighted during the campaign and most observers agree that, for most voters, their vote was more anti-Labour than a strong embrace of the SNP.

5. (C) The other winner the morning after are the Conservatives, despite their third place finish. The Conservatives are pleased to have done better than expected in this constituency. Conservative leader David Cameron had traveled to the district before the election and delivered a speech on the social causes of poverty and deprivation, stressing a need for personal responsibility rather than
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government action. Many Conservatives thought making the speech in the district was a mistake, but it appears not to have harmed the Conservative vote. Michael Fabricant, a Tory MP, told Poloff that the third place finish is important to the Tories because it indicates that Cameron’s appeal and message is making inroads even in traditionally Tory-hostile Scotland. Cameron himself reacted to the vote by calling for the Prime Minister to hold an immediate general election, a call which the Prime Minister’s office termed ridiculous.

What’s Next for Gordon Brown?

6. (C) Nick Brown, Labour’s Deputy Chief Whip, told Poloff that Gordon Brown will use the summer months to “hunker down” and keep his party allies close and his party opponents “in line.” Nick Brown, who is one of the Prime Minster’s closest political advisors, said that as “terrible” as the election outcome was, it would not spark an immediate leadership challenge to the Prime Minister within the Labour Party. The Prime Minister, however, has to use the summer parliamentary recess, now underway, to develop a new political message and consider a cabinet shakeup in order to stop his political freefall. Nick Brown reported that there are “unconfirmed rumors” of a small number of Labour party members considering whether to gather signatures for a letter to the Prime Minister asking that he step down -- supposedly the plotters intend to present the letter on September 5 to the Prime Minister, the date in 2006 on which Labour party rebels presented a similar letter to then Prime Minister Tony Blair -- but Nick Brown said the Prime Minister and his allies would be able “to slap down” the effort, “if it got off the ground at all.”

7. (C) Nick Brown acknowledged that many Labour members were hoping that an election victory in the Glasgow by-election, no matter how narrow, would “cauterize” Labour’s political wounds, but with Labour’s loss, many Labour members will be panicked that the party’s political decline has not yet bottomed out and willing to consider “drastic action.” As Deputy Whip, Nick Brown will be speaking to many MPs over the weekend to “keep their heads about them.” Ultimately, Nick Brown claimed, a leadership challenge to the Prime Minister is “highly unlikely” for the practical reason that, were the Labour party to change its leader and give the UK a third Prime Minister in three or four years, it would be politically impossible for the party not to call a general election shortly afterwards -- it would be “historically unheard of to have two unelected Prime Ministers back to back.” Labour MPs understand, Brown continued, that they would still go down to defeat in such a case so many will be willing to stick with the Prime Minister in the hope he can turn the party’s fortunes around before spring 2010, when a general election must be called.


8. (C/NF) With Parliament on recess on until October 6, Labour will have time for “long and hard” reflection. Attention now turns to the September party conventions, where Labour, and possibly more importantly Brown, will have another (and possibly final) opportunity to convince voters that Labour has “listened and learned.” However, unless Brown takes dramatic action, whether a leadership shuffle or new bold policy direction, he may not be able to fend off grumbles from an increasingly anxious party and, though still unlikely, a possible challenge to his position as party leader.
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