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The hideous Harperson has just released this statement, according to the Guardian:

We’re all getting on with the job as ministers in the government which Gordon Brown leads. We’re all united in our determination to do what’s best for the country, which is for Labour, led by Gordon Brown, to win the general election.

To me, that’s end of story, at least in terms of any challenge to Brown. But, and the Labourists better be absolutely clear about this, the damage has been done.

David Cameron and the Tories might be thrilled about this but my feelings are mixed, impatient as I am finally to see the end of the long, chilling nightmare that has been, and still is, Brown. For now, the nightmare continues.

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The Spectator, among others, reports that Mandelson has released a statement through a spokeman that is so equivocal, it will surely leave Brown quaking in his boots:

Peter Mandelson’s much-awaited statement does not seem particularly full-throated in its support of the Prime Minister.

‘No one should over-react to this initiative. It is not led by members of the government. No one has resigned from the government. The prime minister continues to have the support of his colleagues and we should carry on government business as usual.’

There is no praise for Brown and it almost reads as if someone did resign we would be into a totally different ball game.

Just so. In fact, to me it reads as a not-particularly well-disguised invitation for someone – anyone – in the cabinet to do just that: to resign. However, the statement hedges so much that I still think this thing, given the epic levels of spinelessness we’re dealing with here, will amount to nothing. No one in the Labour party, let alone the cabinet, has the guts to change the game and it’s that gutlessness that will end up costing them all very, very dearly at the general election.

They won’t oust Brown because they are basically hopeless cowards. Cameron will be relieved to hear it.

==Update==
Iain Dale has what looks like a bit of a scoop. Mandelson has pulled out of tonight’s Newsnight, which is, if true, suspicious in the extreme. This thing could actually be on a knife edge, especially if it’s Alistair Darling who’s behind it and accepts Mandelson’s invitation to quit. He hardly looked like he felt like being supportive at pmqs.

==Update 6.34pm==
Course it’s not Darling. The Fink of the Times has reported:

Alistair Darling (Chancellor)- a statement: “As far as I’m concerned we should be concentrating on the business of government and getting though the recession”.

Real spine there. Not. What he hell was I thinking…

I suppose this thing might still have legs if Harperson remains AWOL (Guido). But I doubt it.

Frankly, I’m beyond caring what the Labourist jellyfish do to themselves anymore. What a bunch of pathetic, squabbling, infantile nobodies.

Bring on the election so we can finally put them all out of our misery.

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It might seem like betrayal to many Labourists, particularly on the left of that party, but red Aussie, pub-murdering dominatrix, Hewitt’s, and the Hoon’s call for a secret ballot on the Labour leadership comes as a last ditch, desperate response to the fact – yes, the fact – that Gordon Brown is, was and shall be right up to the election (but not beyond) the most unpopular and unwanted Prime Minister this country has ever had inflicted on it.

It seems that smarter Labour operators have finally woken-up to the fact that the so-called ‘narrowing’ in the polls is obviously a mirage. The trend in polling is terrible for them and it will only take one policy announcement by the Tories, a la inheritance tax in ’07, that resonates with the public for that margin to become massive, meaning a wipeout worse than Major’s in ’97. People are looking for an excuse to obliterate Labour because people, (almost universally, if my straw poll of friends over Christmas is anything to go on, even the Labour supporting ones!), hate, blame and never wanted Gordon Brown. Of course, the only poll that really matters is the general election and those Labourists who seem slightly less bonkers than Ed Balls have rightly concluded that they face absolute meltdown with Brown as leader (assuming the Tories learn how to keep their mouths shut and don’t adopt puppy murder as a key policy).

I wouldn’t get too excited about all this, though. It makes for good telly and provides healthy blog fodder, but I still think that Labour MPs generally don’t have, indeed never had, the bottle to oust Brown, on the strength of their lame performance last year, and having adopted him in that shameful coronation spectacle in the first place. In the end, this isn’t really about the Labour leadership, terrible though it no doubt is. It’s about the party itself, a party that is not just financially bankrupt, but morally and politically bankrupt, too. A party in this level of disarray is a party in a serious state of decay. It should therefore come as no surprise that they are in the position of being a bunch of cowards led by coward. The fact is that they deserve each other, which is why Brown probably will survive this latest domestic earthquake.

Meanwhile, the electorate waits, frustrated, angry and ignored, to give them all the biggest kicking of their pathetic lives – and to rid itself of Brown once and for all. But hey, that’s not ‘betrayal’ is it? That’s just politics.

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Thursday’s Times will not make pleasant reading for the idiots in Brown’s inner circle, or Mandelson (who no doubt was the ‘brains’ behind the operation), who came up with the worst Gracious Speech in living memory. On the front page of that esteemed organ is news of a “savage attack” from Labour peers, which represents an embryonic Labour rebellion that could grow into a monster that even Brown can’t survive, over his back-of-a-fag-packet, cynical (in that it is designed merely to blur in the public’s eyes the Tories’ excellent and established policy commitments on the same issue) elderly care “Bill”. Read on, Macduff:

A key plank of Gordon Brown’s re-election strategy was condemned by members of his own party yesterday as irresponsible, unaffordable and based on a myth.

The Prime Minister’s plan to offer free care at home to the elderly, outlined yesterday in the last Queen’s Speech before the general election, was compared to “an admiral firing an Exocet into his own flagship”.

Lord Lipsey, a former member of the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care, also accused the Government of peddling a “pernicious myth” that people are better cared for in their own homes than in a nursing home.

The measure, aimed at 400,000 of the neediest people, amounted to a “demolition job on the national budget”, he said, as the Government would be forced to cover unnecessary claims made by the better-off. He said that it threatened to undo current work on building a system to help the elderly and those most in need of care.

“I’m not looking forward to the night of the next general election but, if the result goes as I expect, one of the consolations will be that one of the most irresponsible acts to be put forward by a prime minister in the recent history of this country will be swept away with his government,” he added.

Lord Warner, a former health minister, described the care Bill as totally misjudged. “There has been no proper impact assessment, and no data to show how this would work,” he said. “There’s a big question mark as to whether there’s even actually a Bill ready.”

Other peers are known to oppose a Bill that many see as a last-minute, back-of-the-envelope proposal. Mr Brown, criticised by the Conservatives for what they said was a blatantly electoral programme of 15 Bills, faced more attacks from his own side. Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary, said that the Prime Minister’s attempts to impose political dividing lines was “neither the best way to govern the country nor the best way for Labour to win in 2010”.

David Cameron said that the “biggest omission of all” was the failure to mention MPs’ expenses or the report by Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Sir Christopher joined in the criticism, issuing a statement pointing out that party leaders had agreed that his recommendations should be implemented in full. It was disappointing, he said, that the speech failed to address the remit, powers and independence of the new body being established to regulate expenses.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “We are not standing in the way of any of Kelly’s recommendations. Everything related to sweeping away the old, discredited expenses system . . . can and should be implemented without further legislation.”

The criticisms of the care Bill were echoed by health economists. Niall Dickson, of the King’s Fund, said: “These latest proposals seem to have been hastily put together and appear to cut across the options set out in the Government’s own Green Paper.”

This, or, indeed, the entire, pathetic, so-called “programme” hardly went down well on last night’s Newsnight, either. I’ve seldom seen BBC journalists more aggressive towards, and less sympathetic to, the Labour cause to which they have been devoted for so long. Brown’s naked frailties have once again been exposed for all to see. He’s managed to piss off everyone this time – quite an achievement even for a natural divider and blood-stained usurper like him. But it’s still all very strange – almost mysterious – the way the bad vibe just seems to follow him no matter what he says or does. It’s like some kind of darkness is abroad, stalking Brown relentlessly. Mice eating owls and all that other unnatural Macbeth stuff, you know? He just can’t seem to escape it, wherever he turns. It’s almost as if it’s his destiny.

Well, if you bed the devil…(er, Mandelson?)…you only have yourself to blame if he comes for your soul afterwards. And you can’t pin the responsibility for your fate on the weird sisters either (you know, Harman, ****** & ****** – fill in the blanks as you please: there’s plenty to choose from).

One thing is certain, however, Brown’s future as party leader, and therefore as Prime Minister, has just become a subject for open debate once more after that trainwreck Queen’s Speech. But that’s as natural as justice.

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It’s not so much the letter – I suspect that, given his visual disabilities, it might be a little unfair to go overboard in criticising Brown for his careless spelling and semi-literate scrawl, desperately unfortunate though these proved to be in the circumstances – but failing to bow his head at the Cenotaph yesterday? That is an entirely different matter for which he has offered no valid explanation as yet, something I personally find absolutely extraordinary – and, yes, unforgivable. If the Queen feels she must do that to honour the war dead, then so should Brown. “Forgetting,” which, I suggest, will eventually emerge as the excuse this time, uttered all over the airwaves by one of Brown’s substandard ministerial cronies, no doubt (just like Millepede Minor this morning over that letter – in between re-announcing a nuclear programme that will never get off the ground while Labour are still in power), is just not good enough.

But that’s really the fundamental problem with Brown, isn’t it? He lumbers from one crisis to another, one gaffe to another, one bit of cringe-making social ineptitude to another and still no one – in the mainstream media at least – has the guts or the sense to admit the blindingly obvious, very simple fact: he’s just not good enough.

Judging by the weekend’s G20 fiasco, the rest of the world seems to have understood that now. As usual, Britain is just a bit slow on the uptake.

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Stalking donkey horse – outspoken Brown critic, Barry Sheerman

The countdown to Brown’s exit, that is. Barely has the dust settled from the Czech cave-in over Lisbon and the torrent of Labour-sourced, anti-Brown briefings has begun. Already, for instance, this morning’s Times has a front page village report that our useless and unwanted Prime Minister has acquired a stalking horse (stalking donkey more like, but I digress) in the form of Barry Sheerman. The report reveals just how deep the discontent within the Labour government now runs, just how desperately fragile Brown’s authority has become and just how appalling his leadership of the PLP has been, particularly over the expenses issue.

It’s worth a gander:

GORDON BROWN last night suffered fresh challenges to his authority amid growing turmoil over the expenses scandal.

Barry Sheerman, the veteran MP and critic of the prime minister, was on the verge of standing for the position of chairman of Labour’s parliamentary party on what will be seen as a “Gordon must go” manifesto.

The chairman is regarded as the “shop steward” for backbench MPs. The incumbent is Tony Lloyd, a Brown loyalist.

MPs from all wings of the party offered Sheerman their support for his “stalking horse” bid, which could be formally announced this week. Alan Simpson, of the left-wing Campaign Group of MPs, said: “Gordon has found himself floating adrift from his colleagues. I think if Barry Sheerman stood, he might find a surprisingly high level of support.”

Another MP said: “If Barry wins, it would mean Gordon has lost his party. It would be hard to see how he could carry on.”

The fresh plotting came as it emerged that dozens of Labour MPs will openly defy the prime minister by refusing repayment demands from Sir Thomas Legg, the Commons expenses auditor.

Frank Field, the former welfare minister, became the most high-profile “refusenik” by announcing he would not pay back the £7,000 — mainly in “excess” cleaning costs — that Legg demanded. He is among 50 MPs querying demands from Legg.

Field, who when the expenses scandal broke had been described as a “saint” because of his low claims, spoke of his anger at being put in the “rogues’ gallery”. He was particularly angered by the way Legg introduced retrospective caps on claims for expenses such as gardening and cleaning which had previously been cleared by the Commons fees office.

Instead of the £7,000, Field sent a cheque for £117 to Legg with a letter querying his logic.

“It’s like driving along at 25mph in a 30mph zone only to receive lots of tickets which say you should not have been driving over 20mph,” he said.

Amid signs of cabinet despair over Brown’s poor handling of the scandal, Harriet Harman, the deputy party leader, has let it be known that MPs found guilty of “technical” expenses breaches are unlikely to be forced to repay cash.

She is expected to be a candidate in any future leadership contest and Brownite loyalists privately believe she is undermining the prime minister by currying favour with disillusioned backbenchers.

The Legg audit has led to about half of all MPs being asked to pay back sums claimed for cleaning, gardening, furniture and second home mortgages. Many Labour MPs blame Brown personally for allowing the scandal to flare up again.

If Sheerman, respected chairman of the Commons education committee and who is on the moderate wing of the party, were to back away other rebels are ready to fill his place.

Jane Kennedy, the former farming minister, is understood to be considering standing on an anti-Brown ticket. The Liverpool Wavertree MP warned in June that Brown’s refusal to resign could seriously damage Labour.

Malcolm Wicks, a former minister who is now Brown’s energy envoy, delivered a thinly veiled attack on the prime minister’s leadership, saying the party needed to rediscover its “backbone”.

Nick Raynsford, the former local government minister, said Brown had displayed “cack-handed incompetence” over the expenses issue. He said: “It is not, in my view, certain that Gordon will lead us into the next election.”

Many Labour MPs are braced for the publication next month of the official report by Sir Christopher Kelly, chairman of the committee on standards in public life, which will recommend radical reform of the expenses system. He is expected to say MPs should be forced to sell their second homes and to stop employing family members on the Commons payroll.

Brown’s handling of the expenses crisis will face further criticism tomorrow when Harman is expected to raise her concerns at a meeting of the Commons commission — the House’s governing body chaired by the Speaker.

By any standards, this is about as damning as things can get for Brown without an actual, direct challenge to his leadership. Now that Lisbon is done and dusted, itself an appalling crime against British democracy, there is nothing left to halt that direct challenge. It could come any day and I, for one, will welcome it with open arms no matter who we end up with in Brown’s place (even the hated Harperson or the scheming Lord Peter Mandelson). That’s how much I want Brown gone.

One thing is now certain, at least to me, my wish might well come true sooner than even I had predicted. The fraud, usurper and great ruiner of Britain could be gone before the end of this month!

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On Sky News just now Harriet Harman has just been doing a creditable impression of an eel so slippery, it’s got a PhD from the University of Eels in Slippery Studies. Cameron has stated categorically that his MPs must pay back their trough money or they aren’t MPs any more. Harperson has just said that it’s “not a party political matter…blah….blah….Cameron is just trying to look tough…blah”. See? Slippery.

And, no. Cameron’s leading his party and doing the right thing (although I do not think even he’s going far enough). What’s Harriet doing? Well, she clearly doesn’t know because when asked by the anchor for the umpteenth time whether Labour MPs, a number of whom are actually challenging the findings of the Legg review, (unbelievably and suicidally), face the same sanction, slippery Harmon was finally caught.

“But what happens to Labour MPs if they don’t pay the money back?” posed the newsreader.

“Er, well, they will…,” blustered Harman.

No, Harriet, they won’t. That’s the bloody point. One of them was actually saying it on another channel as she was speaking!

Watch the polls, folks. Just when you thought Labour might have a chance of recovering a little bit (a horrible thought), along comes dithering Gordon, who couldn’t lead the proverbial piss up in a brewery (I could 😉 and sinks them.

Suits me.

++Update++
I’ve just heard on the six o’clock bulletin that Brown has followed Cameron’s lead and threatened to fire truculant troughers, or so the reporter said. But listening to his interview from this morning, I’m not so sure that’s what he said. It was equivocal to say the least.

Business as usual for Brown, then.

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