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.