Going To The Mattresses: the art of surviving a coup*


Yet again, the Sunday papers are full of speculation about the threats to David Cameron’s leadership, revolving this time around yesterday’s (what we might charitably call) ‘wide-ranging’ speech by the Home Secretary about what it will take to win the next election.

This stuff will rumble on interminably unless Plan A eventually comes up trumps – no other issue will matter in the meantime – or until some Massive External Event comes along that gives David Cameron the chance to show that he is still the only person for the job.

My advice to No10 is that neither of those scenarios is worth worrying about – i.e. don’t for goodness’ sake start drafting speeches in response to hypothetical Massive External Events (not on email anyway), and if they’re determined to stick to Plan A, there’s nothing to do but see what happens.

What I think they should be spending their time planning for is what happens if all the speculation, rumbling and agitation comes to a sudden head; if someone somewhere decides to force the issue.

For me, all the talk of stalking horses and leadership contests is an anachronistic nonsense. Not since Margaret Thatcher 23 years ago has a party leader had to resign following a formal leadership challenge.

Since then, four have been compelled to resign (or pre-resign in Tony Blair’s case) as a result of pressure from within their own party, and five as a result of general election defeat. Only Paddy Ashdown and, in tragic circumstances, John Smith escaped either fate.

Britain’s modern party leaders are not ousted by stalking horses; they are dragged from their beds in the dead of night, and shot in the courtyard with a Sky News helicopter overhead. So it would be extremely foolish for anyone in No10 to take the complex rules required to mount a leadership challenge as a reason to relax.

No, when it comes, if it ever comes, I’d guess the attempted ousting of the PM will look like this, all familiar features of past coups:

  • Leading Cabinet plotters will deliver subtle but incendiary speeches, interviews or articles, calling for a change of approach or style;
  • Joint letters will be submitted to No10 by symbolically-important groups of MPs, including heavyweight ex-Cabinet Ministers;
  • With sorrowful and suitably-devastating statements, some junior ministers and PPSs will resign, saying they no longer feel able to serve;
  • One or more major donors to the party will withdraw their support; and
  • Above all, supposedly loyal or senior members of the Cabinet will become suddenly absent and turn deadly silent.

These moves will not be the starting gun for a leadership challenge; they will be the sniper rifles attempting to finish the job there and then, by generating enough party pressure and media frenzy that the PM’s resignation becomes inevitable.

So what No10 should be asking themselves is: how well prepared are we if and when that day comes? And if they want to know what it takes to get through an attemped coup, they could do worse than study the record of Gordon Brown – the Charles De Gaulle of Downing Street when it came to surviving assassination attempts. Based on the Brown survival manual, I would ask them the following five key questions:

1. How far in advance do you know what’s coming?

Gordon Brown had hands-down the best intelligence operation of any recent PM. We were having conference calls and going through the ‘secret’ lists and plans of rebels signed up to the September 2008 Blairite plot a full fortnight before they moved into action. By contrast, Brown’s operation knew the Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt coup in January 2010 was a shambolic effort with no support precisely because they didn’t know about it in advance. And I say that with no pleasure given I’m a big fan of Geoff’s, and one of Patricia’s former officials.

But that level of intelligence-gathering doesn’t happen by accident: it’s about cultivating moles; taking talkative, sociable types out for drinks; testing the water with individuals by privately venting (and exaggerating) your own concerns about the future; and above all, keeping your eyes and ears open for unusual couplings or hushed conversations. But that all required hard work and ceaseless vigilance, so what I’d ask No10 is: who is currently putting in that effort for you?

2. Who are your wartime consiligieres?

Of course, good intelligence is only of value if you know what to do with it. Once you know what’s happening, when, and who’s involved, your No1 goal in defeating a coup is to make the whole thing look shambolic and doomed to fail, thereby shaping the media coverage and putting others off from joining.

Sometimes, the plotters do that job for you. Other times, where you know their plans in advance, your task is sabotage. So if X is waiting until Y resigns, and A, B and C are due to follow X, all your effort goes into delaying or preventing the resignation of Y, at which point – when the expected announcement doesn’t pop up on News 24 – the others get cold feet, and Z – who was the first to resign – is left high and dry, as happened to James Purnell in 2009.

With David Miliband’s various abortive coups, there was a certain crude art to inducing their failure. I was often personally criticised for over-reacting to some new Miliband manoeuvre, ‘ramping it up’ as people would say. But given David’s tendency to treat rebellion like a reluctant bather inching his way into the sea at Skegness, it made sense to push him right in at the outset, on the grounds that he’d run straight back to his towel, and not try again for at least six months.

But all this requires both a gift for battle-planning, an eye for the enemy’s weak-spot, and the agility to exploit the chaos you create. And what you need most of all when fending off a coup is the ability to flood the battlefield – in this case the Commons tea-rooms and Millbank TV studios – with loyal soldiers prepared to work flat out and take some bullets to ensure that the main noise in the ears of wavering MPs is unstinting support for the leader and criticism of the plotters.

3. Do you know where each member of the Cabinet is, in all senses?

The moment of maximum danger in an attempted coup is when Kay Burley says: “We are yet to hear from the Home Secretary”, or Nick Robinson says: “The most intriguing thing I’ve heard, not confirmed yet, is that the Education Secretary – one of the PM’s closest allies – did not try and persuade his PPS to stay on.”

Once the test of a coup’s momentum becomes the response of key Cabinet ministers, every hour of silence that ticks by piles pressure on the PM. So you need to know in advance where each individual is, and have a guaranteed way of getting a message through. If the response is they’re in a meeting, then forget it – they’re Fredo Corleone. If they answer, you tell them to get a statement on PA asap, and refusal is not an option, as was the case with Alistair Darling during the Hoon/Hewitt coup. You must put the questions in the mind of a wavering Minister: How can I say no? And what if I get this wrong?

But right now, No10 need also to ask themselves about each Cabinet member: where is their head at? If they seem suddenly to be lunching more journalists, doing more speeches, appearing at more receptions, chatting more in the margins of Cabinet and doing less nodding when the PM talks, then they’re probably already thinking about the next reshuffle after this PM has gone, or – in some cases – of taking his place. So, the question for No10 is: are you monitoring all of that, especially with those the PM considers his closest allies?

4. How’s your relationship with the media these days?

As I’ve said, momentum is everything in an attempted coup: to succeed, the plotters must keep pushing the leader towards the cliff. The media are crucial in determining that momentum: if they say it’s fizzled out, then it has; if they say one more bad day will make the leader’s position untenable, then it will.

But, even for the BBC, this is not an objective, scientific process; it’s about 100 or so very influential people at different media outlets forming a view based on their conversations with each other and with key players on either side of the plot, as well as, to some extent, on public attitudes. That is why, no matter how bad the coverage of Gordon Brown’s Premiership became, it was still vital for us to maintain strong and friendly relationships with those 100 or so people.

So, when and if the day comes, the question is: do the PM, his genuine supporters, and his Communications advisers have strong enough relationships with the media that their reading of the situation will trump that of the rebels, or at least be given equal weight? If Craig Oliver and Liam Fox gave entirely opposite views to a senior political editor about whether an ongoing coup was likely to succeed, who would they currently be more inclined to trust?

5. What are you prepared to concede to survive?

Perhaps the hardest question of all is if, despite all your efforts, you are still pushed towards the crisis point – where the media have decided one more bad day, resignation or letter will kill you – how do you save yourself? The only answer is to negotiate, perhaps not with the plotters directly, but with influential Cabinet ministers or party figures, asking them what it will take to reach a deal.

So it’s vital for the PM to ask himself how far he’d go to make the peace. Would he agree to replace individual advisers, change his style of government, or cancel planned reshuffle moves, all compromises that Gordon Brown made to defuse different coups? Would he agree to move his Chancellor or bring forward an in-out referendum, having previously vowed to do neither? These are not decisions that should be made under the intense pressure of an attempted coup, but thought through rationally in advance, so that the twin temptations to concede too much, or to resign impetuously on principle, are both avoided.


My final reflection on Gordon Brown’s record of overcoming coups, is that – however arduous or brutal some of the methods were – his instinct for survival was there for a reason, in that (by the time the Global Financial Crisis started) he knew why he wanted to be in No10 and what he wanted to achieve – even if he often struggled to explain it.

If that instinct for survival – and everything that goes with it – is lacking in No10 at present, then it may point to a wider problem; with apologies to John Rentoul’s Banned List, something of an existential crisis. Which makes the timing of Theresa May’s speech all the more damaging, given that she showed with some level of detail and verve why she’d like to be in No10 and what she’d want to achieve.

And yet, there is so much for the current incumbents in Downing Street to live for, so many reasons to do what it takes to survive. After all, you never know when the next Massive External Event will come along. And perhaps Plan A will eventually come up trumps. Stranger things have happened.


* = Apologies to those with a purist approach to government for the odd Godfather reference in this piece, but if you can’t compare politics to the mafia when it comes to an attempt to whack the boss, when can you?