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A Walk Up and Down Victoria Street

John Rentoul

20100518 alan johnson w 300x190 A Walk Up and Down Victoria StreetMy entry for Embittered Plonker (I think it means Blairite) of the Year is my essay on the uninevitability of politics in The Independent on Sunday today, in which I take a sideswipe at James Callaghan.

It is written in praise of Alan Johnson, He Who Should Have Been Prime Minister, and in mourning for his fatal modesty, which means that he is not prime minister and someone else, who is no better than him but who possesses vast self-confidence, is.

It identifies 6 January as the fulcrum of the year (although the idea of great determining turning points is, I suppose, part of the inevitablism against which I inveigh): the moment when Gordon Brown could and should have been replaced as prime minister by AJ.

But the testing moment for AJ came seven months earlier, in June 2009, at the time of James Purnell’s resignation. That was never likely to trigger Brown’s fall, as I have argued before, because it would have been hard to resist the pressure for an early election, which Labour MPs did not want.

AJ himself gave an on-the-record interview to Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge for their Brown At 10 (page 273):

Johnson was sitting on the front bench during PMQs. Before Brown began speaking, he thought to himself, ‘I might be taking Prime Minister’s Questions next week,’ as he was the current front-runner to succeed Brown. The idea was not unappealing to him as an ambitious man who enjoyed the limelight. He thought very seriously about throwing his hat into the ring. Aspects of the job of prime minister appealed greatly to him. So why did he pull back? His own explanation is that he was so impressed by Brown’s bravura performance that day at PMQs that he was left wondering whether he could match that level. To clear his mind, he wandered up and down Victoria Street, thrashing out his options. His conclusion was that he did not believe he could do it, so decided he would continue to support Brown’s premiership … ‘I remember thinking about Gordon in action during the financial crisis and thinking, “Could I really do that?”‘

To which, of course, the right answer was Yes. And it is very great shame that AJ did not reverse the decision to which he came on that walk up and down Victoria Street.

Photograph: Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images

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