Brown's survival hinges on the reshuffle

In order to survive, the Prime Minister must not replace Alistair Darling with Ed Balls

Surely this time it’s checkmate. Those of us in the press who have unfashionably and consistently argued up to now that Gordon Brown will remain in place until a general election next year must concede that he is cornered. There are no more moves left for him to play.

Why? Not, as conventional wisdom has it, because of the resignation of three cabinet ministers – who were, after all, implicated in the expenses scandal, threatened (with the possible exception of James Purnell) with demotion, and all “Blairites” with only the most fragile of alliances with the Prime Minister. Nor even because Labour has suffered one of the worst electoral results in its history in Thursday’s local and European elections. But, in the end, it has come down to the impossible reshuffle, and the positions of Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, and David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary.

Granted, Purnell’s unexpected move is the most lethal of all the rebels’ this week: he is a talent who commands respect. He made a private offer to Miliband last summer that he would resign as a forerunner to a Miliband challenge for the leadership. So, there will be grave fears in No 10 this morning that the Foreign Secretary is about to follow suit in a grim repeat of last year’s plan.

But it is the immovability of Miliband and, equally crucially, Darling, that has caused Brown to run out of moves. Both ministers have understandably made it clear they will resign and return to the back benches rather than be redeployed in cabinet. Any move for either man would be a demotion. Were either of them to be offered, say, the Home Office, that would be no good: it is a weakened department known as a trap. Brown must have known this when he offered it to John Reid, only to be rudely rebutted.

And yet, amid signs that Brown is retreating into his dark comfort zone – a zone where Nick Brown rails against MPs he suspects of rebelling – there is persistent talk of Brown making Ed Balls, his close ally and enforcer, the new chancellor.

It is worth being clear at this desperate stage: if Brown dares sack Darling the steady hand in favour of his friend who is such a loyal henchman that he was closely allied with Damian McBride, it’s game over.

Alas, the alternative for Brown is to be perceived as weak. It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister can wait over the weekend to enforce a reshuffle. He has to act today. And, by showing his own preference for Balls, three times refusing to back Darling at PMQs this week, he has left the impression he will change the job at the Treasury. In that sense, he has raised expectations for a “radical” reshuffle that must involve changes at the top. But he has raised the bar too high. He will find his premiership doomed if he tries to move either man; they will in turn become focal points on the back benches for further rebellion. That’s if he survives until next week.

Brown is the towering centre-left politician of his generation. He went into politics for the right reasons. Some of us have looked on in dismay at the unfair hammering he has been given in the media. But now – partly because he has allowed his dark side to win over the “better angels” of which he spoke when he entered Downing Street – he has only himself to blame.

Jonathan Powell, as he drew up at a traffic light beside Boris Johnson several years ago, was almost right: sure, Brown is Shakespearean, but he is also the lead in a classic Greek tragedy. By clinging to the devils he knows, he has brought about his own downfall. After the speculation about an election he never wanted in 2007 (speculation brought about largely by Balls), the media could be blamed for battering Brown. This time he has no one to blame but himself.

Yes, these observations are being made from abroad. Nevertheless, in this, the fastest-moving political soap opera in recent memory, it is impossible to see how Gordon Brown can survive the day as Prime Minister.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage