There has, I hear, been much whispering in dark corners at the Palace of Westminster in recent days. But if the papers are to be believed, the darkest of dark whisperings have been taking place on the internet, in the form of the super-secret ‘Hotmail conspiracy’ to oust Gordon Brown. To recap: on Wednesday night, a few hours before polling opened for the European and local elections, the Guardian exclusively revealed that a group of parliamentary plotters had set up an anonymous webmail address, email@example.com, in order to gather virtual signatories to a virtual letter calling for the PM to resign. The Times published a photograph of a convincingly rumpled print-out of the would-be letter, and Sky News released the wording in full. This was clearly a very secret secret.
There was some disagreement about the mechanics of the plot, but it was said that the ringleaders – all seven of them, or eight; all leftish ‘usual suspects’, or all right-wing ‘Blearistas’ – had promised anonymity to Labour MPs who emailed in the secret passphrase (that’s ‘I agree’). Only when 50 signatures had been collected would the names be revealed. It was also said that 60 MPs were prepared to sign the letter, which wasn’t quite the 70 needed to instigate a leadership election under Labour Party rules, but it sounded impressive nevertheless. It also sounded rather like a figure plucked from the ether, since some plausible potential plotters said they’d never got the email. Others said they’d got one from firstname.lastname@example.org, a nice piece of disguise.
Those with some experience of palace coups have pointed out a problem with the Hotmail scheme. Any really good plotter knows that to use your work email address to conduct secret business is a definite no-no. You need a proper alias, like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, this leads to potential difficulties: can the ringleaders be absolutely certain that if someone calling themselves ‘John Reid’ signs up to email@example.com they are the actual Right Honourable Member for Airdrie and Shotts? When the location of the virtual dead letter box was disclosed to every newspaper reader in the country – and whose fault was that? – the possibility for confusion was multiplied: could it be that there are angry people out there with views of their own? The corresponding difficulty, potentially rebellious MPs suddenly realised, was that there was no way of knowing whether firstname.lastname@example.org wasn’t an elaborate cover set up by the whips’ office to entrap would-be plotters. There was panic on the already jittery backbenches. This was now a regular hall of mirrors; either that, or just another day in the dying of New Labour.
I’m embarrassed to say I have a nerdier difficulty with the Hotmail conspiracy. It’s no longer a breeze to set up an email address at hotmail.co.uk. I think of myself as internet-savvy, as most MPs like to say they are not, and the only way I could find of getting one – rather than being redirected to the jazzily rebranded live.com or the coolly international hotmail.com – was by playing around in a search engine with quote marks and select phrases to find the page I already knew I was looking for. Here’s a new cause for concern: what if the signonnow email address isn’t a plotters’ gambit after all, but an outdated publicity effort set up under Blair for Jobcentre Plus? Where would writing to them get you?
Another theory going the rounds is that all the talk about signonnow is just a diversionary tactic: surely this open secret is a double blind, meant to hide the real means to register revolt; somewhere there’s another email address to which genuine rebels can apply. If that’s your worry, I can exclusively guarantee that if you email email@example.com, right now, your complaint will be noted in the proper way.