Happy New Year! Snow is on the ground again in London. It’s not like much of the rest of the country: my parents are actually snowed in, up North. There’s no infrastructural breakdown here, apart from the predictable tube delays. But cold, it certainly is. Ideal weather for settling down with a warming pint of winter beer somewhere like the St. Stephen’s Tavern, right by Westminster tube station, where Francesca and I enjoyed a pint of Pickled Partridge. This pub is much better than you’d think, being in such a tourist-grabbing spot practically underneath Big Ben. It’s plushly Victorian, very welcoming and has good beer – I like it. As do Scots musicians in kilts and the gin-drinking ladies who admire them. It was New Year’s Day. It doesn’t seem a very political pub, though – for that, I recommend the Red Lion, just round the corner opposite Downing Street.
Twenty-ten may only be minutes old, but believe it or not, Gordon Brown’s leadership is in question yet again. There’s been constant muttering: Labour MPs and Labour supporters know their party would be likely to do better with someone else at this year’s general election, and crucially, no one in Britain can imagine him serving as PM until 2014. He survived a serious crisis last June, when one of his Cabinet resigned, calling for a change at the top. Brown was vulnerable then – I thought he’d resign – but the Foreign Secretary David Miliband (much admired by Hillary Clinton) thought better of challenging Brown at that moment – he “bottled out”, as his critics would put it. I and many others thought Brown’s survival then made him safe until the election. But two former ministers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, astonished everyone on Wednesday by calling for a secret ballot of Labour MPs to decide once and for all whether Gordon Brown should lead Labour on polling day.
In truth, this was an attempt to remove him, veiled only flimsily. It didn’t work. The coup was ineptly timed – Labour MPs were e-mailed the idea just as Gordon Brown was giving an unusually strong performance at Prime Minister’s question time in Parliament – and failed to trigger the ministerial resignations it aimed at provoking. It was much too narrowly based, coming from the New Labour right rather than an alliance of the right, centre and left, which could unseat Brown. And it’s come far too late, with only weeks left before Brown must go to the country. If Hoon and Hewitt really wanted, as they said, to settle the leadership question, then they’ve succeeded. Gordon Brown is now surely unremovable internally. The tepid loyalty displayed by some of his Cabinet weakens him politically outside the Labour Party, though: David Miliband could only say
I am working closely with the prime minister on foreign policy issues and support the re-election campaign for a Labour government that he is leading
a tactically bad response that surely damages his future. I think he’s missed his chance to be Prime Minister, and will never have another. Worse for UK PLC, Alistair Darling made the bare statement that
The prime minister and I met this afternoon and we discussed how we take forward economic policies to secure the recovery. I won’t be deflected from that.
What international markets and credit rating firms think of that evidence of unity at the top of H.M. Government, as they scrutinise Britain’s deficit-reduction plans, I don’t know.
There was just time before the New Year Coup for another media storm to be shrewdly created by Britain’s leading Islamist, Anjem Choudary. He announced the intention of his group “Islam4UK“, which wants the UK to convert wholesale to radical Islam and to be subject to sharia law, to hold a procession in the market town of Wootton Bassett. It’s not a stronghold of Islam. It’s the nearest town to the RAF Lyneham, where the bodies of British soliders killed in Afghanistan land on return to the UK, and the public have taken to lining the streets as a mark of respect as their remains are driven through the town. There’s little doubt this obviously provocative march, if it was ever seriously planned, will be prevented. The Home Secretary Alan Johnson has already said he’ll stop it. But Choudary has succeeded in what was no doubt his primary aim, of gaining publicity for his strange outfit. It’s difficult to know how seriously to take him: few Muslims will agree with much he says, and his ideas are so extreme, they are unlikely to have any wide appeal. But the connection of Islamist ideology with violence, and that fact that a few vulnerable people can be susceptible to radicalisation and extremism in the service of mad ideas, means his activities can’t be dismissed as harmless crankery.
Before I go, I should mention the Cittie of Yorke, a fine, quirky old pub on High Holborn, just by the entrance to Gray’s Inn, where I enjoyed a beer a few days ago. The small booths in the main, back bar are packed with young lawyers and Bar students if you don’t take your seat by 5.30. It’s a place with many memories for me, of drunken nights worrying about advocacy tests, and is one of the few grand old London pubs to have improved in recent times – the Sam Smith’s beer (real ale, but not with a great reputation among drinkers) has improved, there’s not a bad wheat beer alternative, and reasonable food is served. This is quite a good stop for visitors to legal London who are interested in seeing young professional London getting plastered in quaint olde surroundings. I don’t expect to see Anjem Choudary in there. I expect he’d close it down; which is one more reason to oppose him.