Timing of resignation put spin in reverse

WHEN you're down on your luck, nothing goes right. Even the carefully orchestrated hype surrounding a career saving speech becomes overshadowed by chaos and screw up.

Graham Dines

WHEN you're down on your luck, nothing goes right. Even the carefully orchestrated hype surrounding a career saving speech becomes overshadowed by chaos and screw up.

Having persuaded Fleet Street's finest to spin that the Prime Minister's conference address was so brilliant and so well received by the party faithful that talk of a coup had receded into the timeline of history, Labour's spin doctors retreated to the bars of the conference hotel to congratulate themselves on a job well done.

But rumours had started circulating even before Gordon Brown walked onto the stage in Manchester that a Cabinet minister was about to quit. In the maelstrom that is the closed world of a party conference, talk was that the minister in question was quitting with the implicit intention of destabilising Brown.

It forced an extraordinary announcement at 3am on Wednesday morning that Ruth Kelly had asked to leave the Government to spend more time with her family, the time honoured excuse of people who've had enough.

Ms Kelly has not been a spectacular minister. Having caused chaos in Norfolk and Suffolk by setting in motion the moves towards unitary government when she was Communities Secretary, she was moved to the relatively controversy-free Department of Transport.

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But with four young children, she told Brown earlier this year she wanted to go at the next re-shuffle. Somehow a bastardised version of her intended resignation was leaked out to the media on Tuesday, in time to ruin the great Gordon Brown fightback.

Co-incidence? Draw your own conclusions, but Ruth Kelly appeared genuinely upset that her decision should become public in this way.

Having spent part of her 40th birthday on Sunday in Blackburn to name a train Barbara Castle - in honour of the first female transport secretary who was MP for the town - in a ceremony whose publicity was handled by former Harwich MP Ivan Henderson, Ms Kelly tipped up in Manchester to dutifully form part of the Cabinet praetorian guard to protect the Prime Minister.

She may or may not have been unhappy with Brown's leadership. But as a Roman Catholic, she was deeply troubled earlier this year when Brown insisted on pushing through the Commons measures in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, including the creation of hybrid animal-human embryos.

Ruth Kelly is a member of Opus Dei, a Roman Catholic organisation that follows a strict Vatican line on contraception, embryo research, cloning and abortion. Along with two other Catholic Cabinet ministers - Defence Secretary Des Browne and Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy - she voted against the legislation.

That I would suggest is the real joint reason for her quitting. The other is to try to cling on to her Bolton West seat at the next election. The 2,064 majority she “enjoys” has not been helped by the Boundary Commission redrawing the constituency in a wholesale revision of parliamentary boundaries making an already tough fight become virtually mission impossible.

As one of parliament's leading Catholics, she will no doubt be pleased at a recommendation this week from a special constitutional review headed by former Anglican priest Chris Bryant (Labour MP for Rhondda), which is recommending the end of the discrimination against the Catholic succession.

In the 17th century, having been through a civil war centred on the actions of the papist monarch Charles I, and with memories of the Catholic suppressions of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, parliament enacted the 1688 Bill of Rights, reinforcing the Coronation Oath of protestant William and Mary the same year which excluded Catholics or their spouses by providing for the protestant succession.

This was reaffirmed in the Act of Settlement in 1701 and Act of Union in 1707. Neither Catholics nor those who marry them nor those born to them out of wedlock may be in the line of succession.

The law also requires the monarch on accession to make before parliament a declaration rejecting Catholicism.

This religious discrimination does not affect Parliament itself. There is no bar on Catholics - or indeed people of faiths and religions other than the Church of England - from becoming Prime Minister or holding state office.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband is Jewish, and no one has suggested that this would disbar him from becoming Prime Minister. Tony Blair only hesitated from converting to Catholicism while in office because he was conscious at the impact this would have on Unionists in Northern Ireland.

The Speaker Michael Martin, Dr John Reid, now chairman of staunchly Roman Catholic Celtic football club, Des Browne, and Paul Murphy are Catholics. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was raised a Methodist, while David Lloyd George was a Baptist and Sir Andrew Bonar Law a Presbyterian.

The Bryant commission also recommends the end of male primogeniture. This would enable Prince William's first born if she were a girl, would be allowed to become heir to the throne. Until now, an elder daughter would lose the succession if a son were born later.

And as a former Minister for Women, Ruth Kelly will be first through the division lobby voting for this correct change in the law. Of course, that depends on two big “ifs” - that she remains an MP and Labour wins the next election.

THERE'S been much mocking by Labour ministers and delegates at the party conference in Manchester this week of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who during his party's leadership campaign was described by beaten opponent Chris Huhne as “Calamity Clegg”.

Well he's certainly lived up to his nickname. When asked by an interviewer if he knew the amount of the weekly state pension, Mr Clegg replied: “£30, isn't it?”

Whoops. It's actually £90.70. Expect him to be well and truly savaged by the Prime Minister at the first PMQs of the autumn session.

THE importance to Labour of having at least one Euro MP for the East of England has been emphasised by Richard Howitt, who since the 2004 European elections has been ploughing a lone furrow in the region.

Mr Howitt is facing a tough fight to hold his seat, but optimistically he says: “I back Gordon Brown to turn around the fortunes of our party and so predicting the outcome of the next European elections in June is academic just now.

“In 2004, Labour went down from the 25% of the vote we had in the East of England in 1999 to just 15%. It meant I was the only Labour MEP elected in the region under the list system of proportional representation used for Europe.

“But I'm proud to be able to keep Labour's name visible in areas and constituencies across the six counties. It's important there is a Labour voice being heard.”

FIRST in the queue to listen to Gordon Brown's speech were Colchester's husband-and-wife councillors Tim and Julie Young, who stood for several hours to get prime seats. Now that's what I call devotion to the cause.

CHARLES Clarke may pay the ultimate price for calling for Brown to resign. The Norwich South MP and former Home Secretary has hit the airwaves and the fringe circuit this week opining that the only chance Labour has of winning the election is for Brown to be replaced.

Word reaches me that leading members of his Norwich South constituency party have been less than impressed at their MP's disloyalty and moves could be afoot to deselect him at the next election.

That'll be music to the ears of the Tories and Liberal Democrats, both of whom think there are in with a shout of capturing this Labour marginal.

AND finally, I must offer my sincere apologies to Diana Sutton, the charming partner of Euro MP Richard Howitt. At the regional reception in Manchester's swanky Midland Hotel, I greeted her with a kiss and carried on a 10 minute conversion in the mistaken belief that it was East of England minister Barbara Follett.

The two bear an uncanny likeness and Diana must have thought it odd that I was engaging with her in detailed observations about the state of politics across the six counties of the region.

When the real Barbara Follett turned up, she had Gordon Brown in tow and thus I had no opportunity to catch a word with her.


Quote of the week

“It's like the last hours of the Fuhrerbunker - everyone getting pissed and shooting themselves” - Blogger on the Labour Home web site writing about the slow death of Gordon Brown's premiership

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