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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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