Rearranging the deckchairs
Jun 5th 2009
After losing another cabinet minister, Gordon Brown begins to reshuffle his cabinet
GORDON BROWN’S crumbling premiership owes its survival thus far to the timidity of critics on his own side. That good fortune ended on the evening of Thursday June 4th, when James Purnell, a Blairite cabinet minister responsible for work and pensions, resigned and called on Mr Brown to go. Mr Brown's continued leadership of the Labour Party, wrote Mr Purnell in his resignation letter, made a Conservative victory at the next general election more likely.
Rather than stand down, however, Mr Brown brought forward part of a cabinet reshuffle that most had expected would be announced after the results of the European elections (which are likely to bring more grim news for Labour) are made public late on Sunday night. Despite suggestions that Mr Brown had planned to remove his diligent chancellor, Alistair Darling, the finance minister will keep his job. That Mr Darling has not been reshuffled may show prime ministerial weakness as much as magnanimity: the chancellor reportedly turned down two other cabinet jobs, forcing Mr Brown to leave him in place.
Mr Brown’s position has been shored up somewhat by the refusal of heavyweight rivals to follow Mr Purnell’s lead. Mr Purnell’s resignation was not part of a plot. Colleagues who share his market-oriented Blairism, such as John Hutton, or his lack of faith in Mr Brown, namely David Miliband, may have been expected to follow his lead. Instead, the defence secretary and foreign secretary, who is tipped as a candidate in a Labour leadership contest, have joined other senior figures in rejecting Mr Purnell's verdict. Mr Brown feigned regal insouciance by describing the loss of a third cabinet member in as many days by saying that he was “disappointed”. Elsewhere in the party there has been contempt for Mr Purnell. John Prescott, a former deputy prime minister, describes him as “not so much a Blairite as a careerite”.
It is an odd line of attack; Mr Purnell has forsaken a cabinet job and possibly imperilled a gilded future by making this move (although he may hope to be back in office under a new leader very soon). He risks being enduringly tainted in the eyes of this most tribal of parties, much of which already regarded him as too slick, too southern and too right-wing.
So far, the reshuffle, a rare reminder of the power that even a struggling prime minister can wield, seems to be strengthening Mr Brown's position. Alan Johnson, the well-liked health secretary who many wanted to challenge for the crown, has accepted a promotion to home secretary, thus binding him to his boss. Mr Hutton has resigned but for seemingly innocuous reasons.
But even if the prime minister's hitherto shrinking band of sympathisers has been inadvertently augmented by Mr Purnell’s action, he is not safe yet. The prime minister’s position remains critical and could quickly become fatal. Results of the local elections looked dire for Labour as they were announced on Friday. The outcome of the European poll on Sunday is likely to be bleak too. Above all, Mr Purnell's thesis, that Labour led by Mr Brown has little hope of being re-elected, remains unarguable. Labour MPs generally know it. Prominent backbenchers are gathering colleagues' signatures for a letter calling on the prime minister to go.
If they succeed, the tumult will not end there. As a senior cabinet member publicly conceded after Mr Purnell's resignation, the government could not plausibly anoint a second unelected prime minister in a row. If Mr Brown is replaced, a general election is likely to be called long before June 2010, the last possible date permitted under law. And the prospects for peace in the Labour Party look bleak. If Mr Brown had gone of his own accord, or after a putsch encompassing all sides of the party, Labour could have looked forward under a new leader. Now, however, Brownite stalwarts may be able to blame his demise at least partly on Mr Purnell—a former adviser to Tony Blair, no less. There will, probably, be blood.