The Hoon-Hewitt Plot of the 6th January 2009 was (or at least appeared to be) the third in a series of plots designed to remove Gordon Brown as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, being so named after its instigators Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt.
Viewers of the Daily Politics show on the 6th January 2009 might have noted the following exchange at 11.45am;
Andrew Neil: Nick Robinson, I keep hearing rumours of a leadership challenge. I know nothing about all this stuff. Should I believe any of it?
Nick Robinson: No you shouldn't. It's rubbish and isn't going to happen.
An hour later at 11.57 pm, the journalist Andrew Sparrow, who was running The Guardian's live blog of that day's Prime Minister's Question Time, posted the "Hot news" that "Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt are going to make some kind of statement" coupled with a comment on Twitter that the statement would be "about about Brown's leadership". (Although he was later to admit that he had only been acting on information supplied by fellow journalist Patrick Wintour.)
At 12:17 the New Statesman was reporting that a letter was "being circulated among Labour MPs this afternoon calling for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership", and by 12.40 Guido Fawkes had the full text of the letter up on his website - "You read it here first". The story hit Sky News at 12:49pm and the rest of the media soon after.
Yes indeed, the Curse of Robinson had struck again.
A Very Difficult Job
Since assuming the mantle of Leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on the 27th June 2007 it must be said that the general view of Gordon Brown's performance in these roles was that he had fallen far short of expectations. Or as the Bagehot column in The Economist put it; "Being prime minister is a very difficult job, and Mr Brown has not been terribly good at it, especially the parts of it that tend to win elections". This would explain why there had been previous attempts to remove Mr Brown from office, and why it was felt necessary to try again.
The latest 'plotters', Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, were both former Government ministers who had indicated their intention to stand down from the Commons at the next election and were therefore in the twilight of their political careers and so might be said to have had nothing to lose. Their plot consisted of nothing more than an email despatched to each and every member of the Parliamentary Labour Party which communicated the basic message that, since the Party was "deeply divided over the question of the leadership", the "only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot". This was rather a novel argument, since it didn't involve any criticism of Brown's leadership per se, and simply put forward the notion that holding a secret ballot on the leadership question would be a way of getting it "sorted out once and for all". Therefore, it could be argued, that Brown's supporters, as well as his detractors, might see merit in holding a ballot to put the matter to rest once and for all.
Indeed both Hoon and Hewitt made efforts to convince everyone that they were not in fact plotting against Gordon Brown. Hewitt appeared on the World At One to explain that "We're not calling for Gordon to go" and "This is not an attempted coup", as Hoon appeared on Sky News to insist that "I have not made the slightest critical comment about the prime minister". It has to be said that no one believed a word of this, particularly since the Hoon-Hewitt letter had co-opted the Conservative slogan "We can't go on like this" as the rallying cry for their proposal.
Thus The Sun described it as nothing more than a "last-ditch bid to oust Gordon Brown"; The Times saw it as a "last-ditch attempted putsch against Gordon Brown", the Daily Telegraph claimed it was "the gravest threat to Mr Brown's leadership since James Purnell walked out of the Cabinet in June", as The Guardian believed that it was a "devastating blow to the prime minister". Indeed the Guardian became very excited about the whole thing and revamped its live blog of PMQs under the headline "Follow the Labour Leadership Crisis Live!" as the BBC followed suit, and rest of the press fell over themselves trying to claim an exclusive over the story.
The Snowstorm Plot
Allegedly cooked up over a dinner at the Gandhi's Curry House at Kennington in London, the Hoon-Hewitt initiative rapidly became known as the Snowstorm Plot in some quarters as it took place during Britain's severest winter for a number of years with most of the country covered in a blanket of snow. Having grabbed the nation's attention during lunchtime, during the course of that afternoon the usual suspects came forward to support the Hoon-Hewitt plan. Charles Clarke was on hand to tell the Press Association, "I have received the letter and I support their call". Frank Field said the same, as did other notable anti-Brownite backbenchers such as Barry Sheerman, Greg Pope, and Janet Anderson. It was soon clear that something was occupying the attention of the House of Commons that afternoon, as the BBC noted at 3.40 pm that day that the parliamentary benches were remarkably bare as it counted just three Labour MPs, about seven Conservatives, and one Liberal Democrat in the chamber.
In the meantime everyone waited for someone to come forward and back Brown. The first to do so at 2.05 pm that day was John McDonnell, the left-wing member for Hayes and Harlington (not generally regarded as being a member of the Brown fan club), who came forward to announce that he thought that Labour Party members would be "aghast at the renewed factional infighting at the top of the party", but as it was McDonnell's statement only served to emphasise the fact that the Cabinet 'big-hitters' were staying strangely silent. "When are we going to hear from Lord Mandelson and David Miliband?" was the plaintive cry from The Guardian at 2.22pm.
Just before 3.00 pm Andy Burnham, the Secretary of State for Health came forward with his statement of support for Brown, followed soon thereafter by Shaun Woodward and Jack Straw. As the afternoon wore on a steady stream of Cabinet heavyweights such as Peter Mandelson, Ed Balls, Alistair Darling, Alan Johnson, and Ed Miliband, repeated the exercise. However it was 6.40 pm before Harriet Harman felt able to make her statement, and it was well into the evening before David Miliband got around to offering his support.
It was soon noted that it had taken David Miliband some seven hours before he had felt able to speak out (an absolute lifetime in the age of the Internet) and even then only issued a half-hearted statement about how he was focusing on "campaigning for Labour's re-election". The Times later claimed that David Miliband had come "under private fire from cabinet ministers and Labour MPs today for appearing to dither over supporting Gordon Brown", whilst the Labour backbencher Eric Joyce made a pointed reference to the "one or two aristocrats at the top end of the Labour Party who think if they act coy they may inherit the leadership of the party".
Nevertheless a succession of government ministers came forward to profess their loyalty, and it soon became clear that without any support from within the Cabinet that the plot was going nowhere. By the time that Geoff Hoon appeared on Newsnight later that evening he appeared reconciled to the idea that his whole secret ballot plan was dead in the water as he moaned about "those MPs who complain in private an opportunity" but had failed to take the opportunity he had given them to make their views count. And so perhaps the shortest and most unsuccessful plot ever seen in British politics, which Gordon Brown later dismissed as a "storm in a teacup" that hadn't taken up "much of my time", faded away without apparently achieving anything at all.
There is Always an However
However as Ben Wright noted on the BBC News website if you had taken the time to study the pronouncements made by this assortment of government ministers and "read the statements carefully" they didn't "exactly gush about the qualities of the man in Number 10", as ministers appeared content with simply expressing their lack of enthusiasm for the details of the Hoon-Hewitt plan rather than extolling the virtues of their leader.
Indeed when further details emerged on the following day about the exact sequence of events on the afternoon of the 6th January, it appeared as if Brown had been less than honest when he'd claimed that the plot hadn't taken up 'much of his time'. The Independent spoke of how Brown had "clung on to his job as Prime Minister", as the Daily Telegraph alleged that its "sources disclosed" that Brown "survived only by personally pleading with senior members of his Cabinet to continue supporting him. The Times followed a similar line as it explained how Gordon Brown "was forced to surrender a string of concessions to senior Cabinet ministers to secure his leadership after Wednesday's coup attempt" and wrote of how the "true scale of the damage to Mr Brown's authority" had been "laid bare".
It seemed that Brown had in fact spent most of the afternoon occupied in a series of meetings down on bended knee as he sought to persuade his colleagues to refrain from prematurely ending his political career. Most notably, Deputy Leader Harriet Harman spent forty-five minutes meeting with Brown that day, during which time she was said to have "demanded and received a promise to have more day-to-day control over the election campaign". Some accounts went even further and blamed Harrier for the whole debacle, as the Daily Telegraph found one "Labour rebel" who told them "that Harriet put Patricia up to this" and that another "Government source" had told them that "Her fingerprints are on this". All of which might well have raised the quesion of exactly what had happened on the 6th January 2009, and naturally enough there were a number of different answers put forward.
One theory was that the Hoon-Hewitt Plot demonstrated that the Labour Party was "dysfunctional and introverted" and was "home to the world's most inept conspirators". This was an understandable point of view given that, according to Ian Dale's Diary, Hoon had mistakenly sent a blank email to all Labour MPs at 10.40 am on the morning of the coup, then sent another email to apologise for this error, before finally sending the real thing just after PMQs had finished. Naturally the result was that some Labour MPs were so "tired of getting emails from Hoon" that they "didn't bother to read it".
It was even claimed that the plotters believed that at least six Cabinet ministers were ready to step forward and urge Gordon Brown to quit. The BBC named the six as David Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jack Straw, Douglas Alexander, Bob Ainsworth and Jim Murphy. The suggestion being that each one of the six was simply waiting for someone else to start the ball rolling by coming forward in support of the Hoon-Hewitt letter, but didn't want to be the first to do so, and so each in turn simply 'bottled' it.
Another theory, advanced most notably by Matthew Paris, was that since neither Hoon nor Ms Hewitt could "have believed their letter calling for a secret ballot of the Parliamentary Party was likely to accomplish its stated aim", that their only intention was to hurt Brown in some way. Or in the words of a "prominent rebel" tracked down by The Independent; "The name of the game is destabilisation. We learnt it from what Gordon Brown did to Tony Blair. It's not a conspiracy. We have set the ball rolling and we will see whether it will stop or whether it will keep bouncing. We don't yet know where it will end."
There was however another possibility. If the 'plotters' were aware that their plot was doomed to failure, perhaps they never intended it to succeed in the first place. Perhaps they had something else in mind. Once one was aware of the facts that Patricia Hewitt was friendly with Harriet Harman, and of how Geoff Hoon was close to Alistair Darling, and how Brown had been obliged to make 'concessions' in order to ensure his survival, perhaps that had been the intention all along. Perhaps the plot had never been about getting rid of Gordon Brown, but was simply another skirmish in the internal struggle for influence within the Labour government, and that it was all about simply weakening Brown in order to achieve what many in the Labour Party would see as the most important challenge it currently faced; namely preventing the succession of Ed Balls as Leader of the Labour Party.
Whatever the explanation, things did not improve for Brown over the following weekend. The Sunday Times claimed to be in possession of "leaked letters" which showed how "Brown's actions during the crucial period of 2002 to 2004" had left the British Army unable to buy the helicopters it needed, and was therefore by implication responsible for the casualties that had arisen in Afghanistan as a result of the lack of said helicopters, whilst under the headline 'Brown's election shambles', the Mail on Sunday published extracts from a forthcoming book by Peter Watt, the former General Secretary of the Labour Party, which revealed, amongst other things, that one of the reasons why many were pushing Brown to call an early election in the autumn of 2007 was because, as Douglas Alexander, "one of Mr Brown's closest allies", explained, "we have spent ten years working with this guy, and we don't actually like him. We have always thought the longer the British public had to get to know him, the less they would like him as well".
- Labour leadership crisis – as it happened, The Guardian, 6 January 2010
- James Macintyre, Exclusive: secret ballot on Brown's leadership, 06 January 2010
- Guido Fawkes, You read it here first: January 6, 2010 at 12:40 pm
- Full Story: Brown's leadership challenge Wednesday, 6 January 2010
- Francis Elliott, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt launch new Gordon Brown challenge, The Times, January 6, 2010
- Bagehot, Midwinter madness, The Economist, Jan 7th 2010
- James Kirkup, Harriet Harman 'encouraged Labour coup against Gordon Brown', Daily Telegraph, 07 Jan 2010
- Philip Webster, David Miliband under fire amid ruins of failed coup, The Times, January 7, 2010
- Francis Elliott and Philip Webster, Brown forced to pay high price for Cabinet's short-term loyalty, The Times, January 8, 2010
- Patrick Wintour, Peter Mandelson likely winner as Gordon Brown moves to tighten grip, The Guardian, 8 January 2010
- Matthew Parris, They wanted to hurt Gordon Brown, not depose him, The Times, January 9, 2010
- Patrick Hennessy, The curry house plot to oust Gordon Brown, Daily Telegraph, 10 Jan 2010
- Jonathan Oliver, Now Geoff Hoon savages Gordon Brown over Afghanistan war, The Sunday Times, January 10 2010
- Simon Walters, Brown's election shambles, Mail on Sunday, 10th January 2010