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Blunkett is coming back

Contrary to reports, there will be no general election in 2009. But stand by for the surprise return

It's being called the "new taboo" in Downing Street, where to discuss or even mention a date for the next general election has become strictly forbidden. Contrary to reports, those close to the Prime Minister say that there will not be a general election in 2009. "No one is even talking about it this time," says a source, in reference to the disastrous speculation about the election that never was in the autumn of last year.

Downing Street insiders suggest that, if the electorate were to have even a hint that the Prime Minister was putting party politics before tackling the effects of the recession, Labour would collectively pay the price. Instead, it is now strongly presumed by those closest to Gordon Brown that - against the wishes of an anxious and increasingly bellicose David Cameron, who on 9 December called for an early election as the Tories dropped below 40 per cent in one poll for the first time since April - the next election will take place in 2010.

This means there will be scope for one last major reshuffle next summer. The view is emerging that, although there is an abundance of talent in the younger generation of ministers, the forthcoming fight with the Tories will require battle-hardened experience; and word is that at least one other Labour "big beast" could be eased back into government in the new year to add to Peter Mandelson. The favourite is David Blunkett. Friends of the former home secretary - who is a very different politician from Mandelson, and much more instinctive - say that he was promised a return to government after his second resignation as work and pensions secretary in 2005. (He resigned after breaking the code of conduct by failing to declare several commercial posts to the parliamentary watchdog.)

Before that, Blunkett had been forced to resign as home secretary in 2004, amid allegations that he attempted to assist in a visa application for the foreign nanny of his then married lover, the former Spectator publisher Kimberly Quinn. After his resignation, and because of his erratic behaviour, Blunkett was said to have come close to suffering a nervous breakdown, and his career briefly appeared to be over. Yet even after his initial rehabilitation and then, more murkily, second resignation, Tony Blair insisted that Blunkett would be leaving government "with no stain of impropriety against him whatsoever". And he promised that Blunkett would one day return to high office.

Blair was reluctant to accept Blunkett's second resignation, and insisted his minister had left government because of a "media frenzy" rather than his having done anything wrong. At this point, it is said, Blunkett was assured of a return by both Blair and the prime-minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown.

When Mandelson returned as Business Secretary in early October, the Mail on Sunday reported that the Prime Minister had been on the verge of rehabilitating Blunkett as well. This led the Tories to start talking of Labour becoming "the government of the living dead". But talks between Brown and Blunkett were said to have stalled because Blunkett was holding out for a full cabinet position, while Downing Street was intent on exploring other roles for him. Today, however, the Sheffield MP is being looked at again by party strategists, who see his "backstory" (Blunkett overcame poverty and the early death of his father in an industrial accident to become the first blind cabinet minister) as a potent contrast to the high privilege of those Bullingdon Club Tories, David Cameron and George Osborne.

One senior Downing Street source predicted that Blunkett - whose socially conservative but economically radical politics fit the new mood at large in the government and the country - would make a return to the front line next year, either in a summer reshuffle or earlier, if an opportunity arises. "He'll get a job the next time there is any movement," said the source, who indicated the role may not be in the cabinet but would be operational, with Blunkett helping to revive Labour on the ground in the north of England, industrial towns and white working-class areas that need to be won back.

Blunkett would also be another "attack dog" to take the renewed fight to the Tories. The idea, then, would be to head into battle against the Tories with some of Labour's biggest beasts united around Brown, who would include Mandelson; Alan Johnson, the popular Health Secretary; Blunkett; and even David Miliband, who has shown great maturity in backing the Prime Minister. Some influential voices are also calling for a return for Peter Hain, seen by many to have been wrongly forced out as work and pensions and Welsh secretary after the Electoral Commission referred a review of donations to his deputy leadership campaign to the police.

There will, however, be no recall for Alan Milburn, contrary to some speculation. Brown's allies regard Milburn, rightly or wrongly, as the chief plotter over the summer around the time of the Glasgow East by-election defeat in July, and won't forgive him for that. They also believe that Blair (and Mandelson) overrate the abilities of the former health secretary, and that his hard Blairite politics are no longer appropriate for "Bold Labour".

Sadly, Charles Clarke has also "blown it", according to my source, by agitating for a leadership contest during the autumn party conference season. So the man whom Brown allies see as a "loose cannon" will remain on the back benches, having first turned down Defence when Blair removed him from the Home Office in 2006, and then declined several foreign envoy roles when Brown first took office.

Should Labour lose, Clarke may emerge as a veteran candidate for the leadership, along with Johnson. In the more likely event that Labour eventually wins, Brown will stay on for a period as leader, before a contest that, as Martin Bright reports on page 10, currently looks like being a fight between the Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, and the Schools Secretary, Ed Balls. But, as David Miliband has learned, the fashionability of candidates can come and go, and there will come to be another name in the frame, one that has the respect of all wings of the party - that of the Foreign Secretary's talented younger brother, the minister for climate change, Ed Miliband. But that story is for another day.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech