Labour came out of the 2005 election with a mixture of accomplishment and disappointment. The party had secured a third term in government for the first time in its history, but gained no new seats. Its majority was radically reduced to 66.
Soon afterwards, and despite promises he would serve a full term, Tony Blair stepped down as prime minister, leader of the Labour party and MP for Sedgefield.
The move was prompted by a wealth of reasons, not least of all the appetite for change in the country and the pre-arranged mechanism left over from the Brown/Blair pact. But most importantly of all, Iraq had damaged the prime minister's reputation beyond repair.
Gordon Brown took over as leader without a contest – a move the party wanted to smooth the transition but possibly regretted later when the true scale of his unpopularity became clear. He gave Alistair Darling his previous role as chancellor, a role the mild-mannered Scot would later find extremely stressful given the financial crisis on the horizon. Jacqui Smith was made the first female home secretary in British history, a glorious PR move that appeared less intelligent when she later admitted being grossly unprepared for the role.
The first few months of Brown's premiership were impressive. Buffeted by crises, he performed admirably. The foot and mouth scare and extensive floodings prompted a measured response from the new prime minister and the failed terrorist attack on Glasgow airport saw him put on a calm, reasoned performance totally at odds with his predecessor. A little later Brown struck a detached and dignified figure next to George W. Bush which went down exceptionally well in the UK after Blair's fawning approach to Angle-American relations.
Brown negated two prominent policies of Blair's – cannabis declassification and the creation of super-casinos. He also won important support from the Sun for his campaign to have the Union Flag fly from government buildings all year round.
But then came the election that never was. In a drastic miscalculation, Brown allowed speculation of an early poll to build to near-fever pitch before eventually deciding against it. The next day almost every newspaper held the headline: Brown Bottles It. The decision did not just represent the narrative turn in Brown's fortunes, but also encapsulated two of his weaknesses: indecision and the prominent role of party political calculation in his decision-making. The last was particularly damaging given the focus he put on ending spin when he entered Downing Street.
Soon, Labour support had dropped to levels not seen since Michael Foot's leadership – one of the most drastic disintegrations of fortune seen for some time in British politics.
There were a string of by-election defeats. The Tories seized Crewe and Nantwich, with Labour's 7,000 majority overturned by a margin of almost 8,000 votes. Despite representing Labour's third highest majority in Scotland, the party lost Glasgow East to the Scottish National party (SNP) in a nailbiting finish of 365 votes in 2008. Then Conservative Chloe Smith overturned Labour MP Ian Gibson's 5,459 majority in Norwich North after he was banned from standing again over his expenses. Things hit rock bottom a little earlier, in May 2008, when the party scored just 23% in a YouGov poll for the Telegraph.
There was some improvement in the party's fortunes when the financial crisis hit. Brown's confidence with economic affairs won him plaudits and international recognition and his left-of-centre rhetoric was better attuned to the period than the Conservative approach, which was initially indecisive. But eventually the Conservatives focused on the budget deficit and called for drastic cuts to public spending in the short term. Brown's reaction was telling. He initially tried to establish one of his famous 'dividing lines', framing Tory cuts against Labour investment, but was convinced otherwise by a jittery set of advisors. The party's newfound commitment to a legally enforceable deficit cut of 50% in four years became the chosen vehicle to go up against Tory demands.
Brown made some smart moves in his reshuffles, most notably when bringing in Peter Mandelson. This pacified the Blairite wing of the party and brought the assured new business secretary back into the fold. He now spends most days in front of TV cameras downplaying the most recent crisis.
The various coup attempts against Brown have been damaging, but his ability to survive them impressed even the most seasoned parliamentary observers.
David Miliband, foreign secretary, has proved arguably the least reliable of his lieutenants. He wrote a piece in the Guardian which failed to even mention Brown in July 2008. It caused a minor political explosion. Charming and confident, Miliband was considered prime leadership material, although a disastrous conference season and crucial period of inaction during later coup attempts have significantly damaged his reputation.
On June 3rd 2009, a day before the local and European elections, communities secretary Hazel Blears resigned. She made no comments against Brown but a broach she wore emblazoned with the phrase 'Rocking The Boat' said everything she needed it to.
On June 4th, James Purnell, pensions secretary, resigned, writing a damaging letter to the prime minister telling him: "I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely."
A Cabinet reshuffle on June 5th saw a dramatic and frenzied day of Westminster negotiations take centre-stage. As Brown delivered his press conference at the end of the day, news suddenly emerged that housing minister Caroline Flint had resigned, citing Brown's leadership as her reason. She had been treated as "female window dressing", she explained.
Labour planned a fightback operation for their conference in September, but Brown's triumphant speech was met with a devastating front page in the Sun newspaper the next day, saying it would now give its support to the Conservatives. Brown had lost the backing of Rupert Murdoch – a relationship Blair had worked hard to secure. Labour MPs were angry. Journalists tried to work out how damaging such a shift really was. But the mood in Labour HQ was dejected. Even after all their hard work, they could not emerge from the negative publicity.
Former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and former health secretary Patricia Hewitt tried to dethrone Brown in the new year. As snow fell on Westminster, the two Blairites wrote a letter to Labour MPs urging them to support a secret ballot for the leadership. The party turned on them in disgust and the Cabinet eventually emerged to assure the media the prime minister had their support. But the timing of the assurances – some hours after the coup attempt emerged – and the lukewarm language used raised as many questions as it answered. Brown had to promise his Cabinet many things in order to secure their support and the day marked a final ebbing away of his powers which, ironically, had probably never been as strong as they were when he sat in the Treasury, plotting against Tony Blair.
The 2010 general election campaign saw Gordon Brown's efforts fundamentally undermined by his 'bigotgate' gaffe. On the doorstep Labour candidates were rebuffed by many voters, who struggled to understand the points-based system used to tackle immigration, a big issue. Labour slipped from 349 seats to 258, losing its overall majority. Brown resigned on the formation of the coalition.
The party spent the summer of 2010 looking inwards in a competitive five-way leadership campaign. Ed Balls and Andy Burnham performed impressively while Diane Abbott helped make a name for herself as a serious politician, but it was the brotherly struggle between frontrunner David Miliband and his younger brother Ed which captured the headlines. In the end, David Miliband won greater support among MPs and the broader party membership. But Ed Miliband overwhelmingly won the backing of the unions, thereby taking the leadership overall. During the party's autumn conference, David Miliband announced he was quitting frontline politics – for now.
Labour achieved something of a recovery in 2011's local elections, taking power again in Wales and gaining an extra 26 councils. But the party's support collapsed in Scotland and the Conservative vote held up well in the south, raising questions about Ed Miliband's leadership.