Brown in a right Pickle!

ESSEX MP Eric Pickles has emerged as an unlikely Conservative Party hero after masterminding the successful campaign in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election last week.

Graham Dines

ESSEX MP Eric Pickles has emerged as an unlikely Conservative Party hero after masterminding the successful campaign in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election last week.

Mr Pickles, the MP for Brentwood & Ongar, has been applauded by grass roots Tories as one of their stars of the month of May.

Called by David Cameron “the big man”, Mr Pickles also played a leading role in the Conservatives' victorious campaigns in the London mayoral and English and Welsh local government elections.

Two months ago, when Conservative activists last ranked the shadow cabinet on the Conservative Home website, the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government was 10th. This week, he's now shot up to 3rd place, just behind the members' favourites; David Davis and William Hague.

Mr Pickles is the Tories' local government and communities spokesman, a job for which he is well qualified. And this quietly spoken Yorkshireman, who was the leader of the Tory group on Bradford city metropolitan council until his election for Brentwood & Ongar in 1992, is favourite to become secretary of state if the Tories win the general election.

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He spent the entire by-election campaign up in Cheshire to help the Conservative candidate take this Labour seat on a swing of more than 17%.

However, he couldn't have done it alone. Much of the credit for Labour's humiliation is down to Gordon Brown and now, with Labour on the floor and in severe danger of sinking through the basement to the foundations, the talk is of a possible coup against the Prime Minister.

If the febrile atmosphere engulfing the party since last week's disaster at Crewe & Nantwich continues over the summer, Labour's annual conference in September - which this year takes place in Manchester - could lead to the Prime Minister facing a leadership challenge.

Changing one Prime Minister in mid-term is just about acceptable. Dumping a second one would lead to a constitutional crisis, with whoever emerging from the army of bloodstained knives would have to call an immediate General Election.

Gordon Brown knows this, and he'll be banking on the self-preservation instincts of Labour MPs to stop taking part in a suicidal mission.

To be forced out of office by an open act of rebellion - but much to the delight of the Blairites - will be humiliating for Brown. But Labour has no equivalent of the “men in grey suits”, those Tory grandees who deliver the cyanide pills to the leader that has to go for the good of the party.

If things get so bad for Labour that a putsch turns from possible to probable, what would Brown do? For the well-being of a party facing electoral annihilation at the next election, he could resign with dignity.

He could also attempt to bluff it out, as John “back me or sack me” Major did in 1995, but although he might win a contest, he'll be severely wounded.

Tory MPs backed Major, but he was sacked by the electorate.

In 1995, Michael Portillo dithered over whether to challenge Major. In the end, he left it to Welsh secretary John Redwood to try to oust the Prime Minister. Portillo even went as far as finding a leadership campaign headquarters and installing telephone lines before he thought better of it.

While health secretary Alan Johnson would be smart choice for Labour should a vacancy arise, it looks as though an unofficial whispering campaign is underway to promote the case for Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Blairite to his fingertips, Miliband headed Blair's policy office both in opposition and in government. He'll be 43 in July, matching Tory leader David Cameron in the youth stakes.

Cameron has been compared to Tony Blair. Forget that - it's Cameron and Miliband who will take British politics forward in the first two decades of the 21st century.

Yet while Cameron is photogenic and a good communicator at all levels, Miliband looks like a typical geek with nerdish tendencies. Most voters would be hard pressed to identify him.

But he's almost obscenely clever. And he's the very model of a modern politician, embracing green issues with alacrity - his website even contains a link allowing visitors to calculate their carbon footprints.

As one normally loyal senior Labour Party member in Suffolk confided: “I was against Brown being elected leader unopposed because I knew he would be a disaster. Miliband is Labour's only hope.”

There may not be a leadership contest. Even if enough MPs were found to call for the process to start, no Cabinet minister is likely to emerge to challenge an incumbent Labour leader.

Only if Brown were to accept that he is such a liability that he should stand aside would Cabinet members be tempted to show their hands.

But even if Brown took the hint that he had fouled up big time the job he's always regarded as his by right and was to step aside, with the prospect of an immediate election sweeping Cameron to power, would Miliband, Johnson and even Jack Straw really want to lead Labour to the slaughterhouse?

TROUBLE IN STORE FOR LABOUR'S NEC

MORE trouble for Labour. Senior officials and members of the party's ruling National Executive Committee - including former Eastenders star Michael Cashman and Blackadder actor Tony Robinson - will be personally liable for debts totalling millions of pounds if loans taken on to fund the 2005 General Election are called in over the next few weeks.

Loans totalling £7.45 million are due for repayment or review by July 1, and around £6 million more by the end of this year, according to figures on the Electoral Commission website.

Because of Labour's constitutional arrangements, individual members of the NEC and senior officials are “jointly and severally” responsible for the party's debt and could be required to meet outstanding debts from their own funds.

It is understood that it so concerned that he might be bankrupted by this personal liability that led City financier David Pitt-Watson to turn down the post of party general secretary earlier this year.

Reports quoting an unnamed Labour source indicate that the true level of the party's debt, including interest, is nearer to £24m than the £17.8m recorded on the Electoral Commission website. The loans were obtained by Tony Blair and his chief fundraiser Lord Levy.

A party spokesman refused to give a running commentary on Labour's efforts to repay its debts. “The Labour Party publishes all details of its loans and lenders with the Electoral Commission and constantly keeps its lending under review, but does not give a running commentary on these matters,'' said the spokesman.

“Any changes to loans would be in conjunction with Electoral Commission guidelines and advice.''

POST OFFICE CLOSURES HIT BROWN'S CONSTITUENTS

GORDON Brown says he shares the pain being suffered by millions over rampant fuel and food prices. Now his own constituency is under the weather - the latest area to be hit by Post Office closures. A total of 42 face the axe in North East Scotland, including four in Mr Brown's Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath division in Fife.

There will now be a six week consultation before the closures are confirmed. There are 374 post offices in the area covered by the announcement, but Royal Mail insisted that 99.9% of the population of North East Scotland would see no change to their nearest branch or would remain within a mile of an alternative. The closure programme is due to be completed by the end of 2008, and will leave a post office network of around 11,700 branches

ELECTION DATE BID TALKED OUT

A BID by an East Anglian MP to remove the Prime Minister's power to decide the date of a General Election has been blocked in the Commons.

Moving his Fixed Term Parliaments Bill, Cambridge's Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth said allowing the Premier to decide the timing of a General Election within the present five-year window was a “bizarre” way to run the country.

The measure, which would have fixed the date of the next General Election at May 7, 2009, with future elections taking place every four years after that, was talked out by the junior justice minister.

Opening the second reading debate on the Bill, Mr Howarth said the events of last autumn, when Gordon Brown was accused of bottling the decision to call an early General Election, had been “disastrous” for his reputation. “But it was also ridiculous and damaging to the whole country and to the political system itself.

“This seems to be a bizarre way to run a country. The political system was reduced to a sort of political guessing game.”

Essex Tory MP Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) said she was “not enormously enthusiastic” about the Bill but said the subject needed debating. Ms Prentice said the Bill was proscriptive about the election date. The Government was not afraid of reform if it better reflected the face of Britain's modern democracy.

“We do believe the system requires updating in reflecting the more democratic time we live in. And we do intend to change the convention so the Prime Minister is required to seek the approval of the House of Commons before asking the Monarch for a dissolution.”

The “big weakness” of the Bill was that it did not spell out what Parliament would be able to do if the opposition won a vote of no confidence in the government of the day.

All other UK elections are on a four year cycle - Scottish parliament and councils; Welsh assembly and councils; Northern Ireland assembly and councils, London mayor, Great London Assembly, and London boroughs; county councils; unitary and district authorities, English councils. The European Parliament is elected every five years.

EUROPE HAS THE LAST LAUGH!

WHAT would Maggie say? The European Parliament and the European Commission have completed the £20m purchase of a new joint headquarters for their UK offices - 32 Smith Square, formerly Conservative Central Office!

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