Gordon Brown is, as we go to press, fighting for his own political life, with his MPs mutinous and even his closest colleagues demoralised.
At the same time, he was preparing to reshuffle his cabinet in an attempt to regain political momentum, an exercise of prime ministerial patronage carried out from a position of extreme weakness.
In normal times, cabinet reshuffles enable a prime minister to appear in command of events and convey a fresh perspective. But Mr Brown is not in control of events. In normal times, they are a handy crisis management tool for premiers in difficulty that can distract public and press from the personal unpopularity of the incumbent in No 10. But these are far from normal times, and if Mr Brown is resting his hopes on such a move to revive either his or his party’s fortunes, he is likely to be disappointed.
Consider the political mood. It is widely expected that the Labour Party will go down to its worst defeat in history, in both the county council and European elections; the country is in the midst of the worst parliamentary crisis in living memory as well as the worst recession; and the Parliamentary Labour Party is in disarray.
In addition, reshuffles are normally an opportunity for the Prime Minister of the day to reorder the government in his or her own preferred image. This time, ministers have been pre-empting the PM’s will by unilaterally signalling their intention to resign from government. Even before Hazel Blears’s resignation (she jumped before she was pushed, say Brownites), the list of ministers who had announced that they were resigning from the government included the hapless Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, the children’s minister, Beverley Hughes, and the Cabinet Office minister and Gordon Brown ally Tom Watson. This was unprecedented, especially on the eve of major elections, when the government, with its dreadful opinion-poll ratings, should have been at least attempting to show unity and purpose and fighting for every vote.
To add to the instability, Mr Brown had done nothing to quell speculation that he would dump the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, his one-time ally and confidant. Like Ms Blears, Mr Darling was an enthusiastic “flipper” of second homes and has been damaged by the expenses revelations. He may now be replaced by an even closer ally and confidant of Mr Brown’s, yet a far more divisive and unpopular politician: the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls.
In the short term, Mr Brown may succeed in looking decisive, and reshuffle fever may capture the headlines and overtake interest in what are expected to be woeful election results for Labour – although if the party collapses to below 20 per cent in the Euro elections, or finds itself no longer in control of even a single county council, or reduced to a rump of less than 100 councillors nationwide, all bets are off.
In the long term, however, the issue is: what difference will a reshuffle make to Labour’s fate? Will it win over disillusioned voters or convey a sense of urgency? This is a time for new ideas, bold thinking, original perspectives. But the bleak truth is that this is an exhausted government, stumbling through its final months in power after 12 years in which countless chances for political, electoral and constitutional reform were squandered.
In fact, as the historian Ted Vallance points out on page 22, the constitutional and electoral reforms proposed by all three party leaders, bereft of genuinely innovative thinking, represent little more than the resurrection of ideas of such antiquity that they were originally advocated by the Levellers and the Chartists.
In April 2006, after losing 300 council seats across England, Tony Blair executed his most ruthless reshuffle, despatching Charles Clarke from the Home Office and moving Jack Straw from the Foreign Office. It didn’t save him – by September he was announcing that he would leave No 10 within the year. At the time, the former health secretary Frank Dobson suggested Blair’s last reshuffle had simply rearranged the deckchairs on the Titanic when what was needed was a new man at the helm.
The coming days will be a time of anguished reflection for every Labour MP. Meanwhile, the country waits for a prime minister and a government to lead again, to show direction and authority, with or without Mr Brown. The alternative is a protracted civil war in the Labour Party and a landslide victory for the Conservatives.