Belfast Telegraph

Claws come out for Labour leadership contest

By Chris Moncrieff

As the Labour leadership contest draws to a close, Chris Moncrieff looks at the verbal brawl surrounding the Miliband brothers

It was bound to happen: the Labour Party leadership contest has descended, at the last minute, into a gory, verbal brawl and an almighty political rough house. The cobras are spitting venom.

Whichever way the election goes, there will be plenty of blood to be scraped off the walls and the carpets before the Labour Party can properly set about the task of becoming an effective and responsible opposition.

It looks to me as though supporters of David Miliband, the Blairite man, who has apparently been leading the field for most of this tedious contest, are starting to panic. Now, it appears that younger brother Ed, who is seen as the leftie, is inching ahead.

This is the signal for Lord Mandelson to sling some damning words at poor Ed.

He accused him of being the author of Labour's "Guardianista" general election manifesto, leaving the impression that he felt it had cost the party the election.

Mandelson also took the opportunity to take a swipe at one of the outsider candidates, Ed Balls, whom he accused of trying to encourage Gordon Brown to sack his Chancellor Alistair Darling. Lovely people!

Meanwhile, Lord Kinnock, a fervent Ed Miliband supporter, in comments before Mandelson's tirade was known about, has accused David's supporters of "spreading all kinds of bile" about Ed. Talk about brotherly love!

This is degenerating into a vicious contest, making the general election battle itself look like a gracious Edwardian picnic by comparison.

When the victor is announced next Saturday at the outset of the Labour conference there will no doubt be some thunderous applause, but also some groans and surly faces as well.

Will the party continue on its Blairite course (presumably airbrushing Gordon Brown out of the picture altogether) or will it swerve to the left? Whichever direction it takes, the new leader will be hard put to it to reconcile the different factions in the party in a way which will restore Labour to become an effective fighting force again.

At the moment they are too busy fighting among themselves, as they invariably do after a general election defeat.

The cry, which we will hear interminably next week, "Let's all unite behind the new leader" sounds pretty hollow as of now.

What this party needs above all to show its mettle in the House of Commons and elsewhere is, I am afraid, a good kick up the rump.

But all is not lost. Labour appears to be the beneficiary of hundreds of Liberal Democrat rank-and-file supporters who are so appalled by their party leadership cosying up to the Conservatives and, in their view, abandoning their Lib Dem principles, that they are defecting in droves and tagging on to Labour instead.

So the next general election could see a serious downsizing of the Liberal Democrats at the polls.

  • Is Vincent Cable, the Business Secretary, spoiling for a fight - or what?

The one-time darling of the Liberal Democrats appears to be sitting very uncomfortably in the coalition Government and is gradually morphing into a grumpy old man.

He is now grumbling, publicly, about the Government's planned cap on immigration, which was a Tory general election policy, although, admittedly, not a Liberal Democrat one.

But now Mr Cable, whether he likes it or not, is a member of the Cabinet and should be adhering to the practice of collective Cabinet responsibility, something he does not appear to appreciate.

This practice is an essential part of British Government. If, as a Cabinet member, you do not like some of the policies they are pursuing, then you either keep quiet about them, or you get out. But you certainly do not, or should not, do what Cable is doing, namely publicly expressing his disapproval and, in the process, undermining his own colleagues.

It is said that the Prime Minister has given him a dressing down - and quite right, too. Indeed, Cable would have had no complaint if David Cameron had sacked him on the spot.

It is not as though Cable was indispensable, or anything like it.

If you are going to have an effective government, you cannot have its own members questioning its policies in public.

And if Cable cannot, despite getting his knuckles rapped, contain himself in future, then he must surely be heading for the political scrap heap, unmourned by pretty well everyone.

That would at least give him more opportunities to perfect his well-known ballroom skills.

  • A postal union has threatened to try to unseat certain Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs unless they vote against the Government's plan to privatise the Royal Mail.

That sounds to me a bit like a threat. Does the Communication Workers' Union appreciate how uncomfortably close they may be getting to a contempt of Parliament.

They might be well advised to retract their claws.

  • The new Labour leader, whoever it might be, may have the opportunity of an early and hostile encounter with the media. A football match has been arranged between the press and Labour MPs on Sunday, the day after the new leader is named.

However, David Miliband will not be playing, saying he is "not good enough" while his brother Ed is an unknown quantity, even on the left-wing.

But Everton-supporter Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, both of them outsiders, have promised to play whether elected or not. The winner (of the election, that is) will appear on the Andrew Marr programme on Sunday morning and then (if it is Burnham or Balls) get into football mode.

It is likely to be the first of many opportunities to cry "foul" at the conduct of the press, both on and, particularly, off the field of play.

  • A week or so ago, I wrote that rumours were sweeping Westminster that Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, and his deputy, Alan Duncan, were not the best of buddies. I hear now, from an impeccable source, that that is not the case, and they get on like a house on fire. I'm sorry for implying otherwise.

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