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End of an era as Brown faces disaster

Allister Heath
ALL of Westminster was only talking about one story last night &ndash; and for once, it was only indirectly related to MPs&rsquo; expenses. I am, of course, referring to the astonishing Ipsos Mori poll showing Labour down 10 points and neck-and-neck with the Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent. The Tories are on 40 per cent; these results, for the Westminster elections, were the most devastating ever for the Labour party. Even if this poll exaggerates the Tory lead (it includes only those certain to vote, and many Labour supporters just can&rsquo;t be bothered at the moment) it nevertheless confirms that British politics is at turning point as important as that of 1997. <br /><br />Surveys focusing on the European elections are markedly different, however: the Tories are getting a lower share of the vote, though they remain in the lead; and Labour looks like it could even be beaten into fourth place behind Ukip &ndash; likely the be the great winner of Thursday&rsquo;s European election &ndash; and the Liberal Democrats. <br /><br />With Labour heading for total wipeout in this week&rsquo;s local and European elections, and then at the general election, Gordon Brown has little left to lose. He is likely to axe Alistair Darling, his independent-minded Chancellor, whom he pointedly failed to defend properly yesterday. A major reshuffle could take place as early as Friday, ahead of the European results being published on Sunday night (after all European countries have voted); when the disastrous results come in, they could be dismissed as a backward-looking judgment on his previous cabinet. Ed Balls, his long-standing prot&eacute;g&eacute; and a man guaranteed to do his bidding, could become chancellor. The name of the game will be to bring in as many loyalists as possible while buying off potential leadership challengers, before unveiling a flurry of gimmicky policies and yet more unaffordable spending plans, in a desperate bid to buy time before the economic recovery. <br /><br />All of which might sound like a game-changing plan to Brown but is unlikely to impress voters. If enough Labour and trade union grandees realise this, their most likely Plan B would be to force Brown &ndash; via a campaign of resignations and open attacks in the press &ndash; to quit, with Alan Johnson, the health secretary, brought in to replace him. Another prime ministerial coronation without a general election would be intolerable, so a poll would have to follow &ndash; but Johnson might be tempted to first rush through a referendum on replacing the current first-past-the-post parliamentary system with proportional representation. This would allow a Labour-Liberal Democrats-Green coalition to retain a majority in the House of Commons, and rob the Tories of victory. In fact, it would mean permanent left-wing rule, as the Tories haven&rsquo;t collected a majority of the UK-wide popular vote since 1931. <br /><br />There is only one problem with that strategy: it wouldn&rsquo;t wash with an electorate angry at giving even more power to political parties. The referendum would most likely be met with a resounding &ldquo;No&rdquo;, dealing a possibly terminal blow to the Labour Party. And with or without proportional representation, the LibDems could even emerge as the leading left-wing party, finishing the work the SDP started in the 1980s. One thing is clear, however: Gordon Brown is finished &ndash; and few will be shedding any tears, in the City or in the country.<br />allister.heath@cityam.com