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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.