Friday, June 05, 2009

Is Purnell's Resignation the End for Brown?

On Wednesday night, the Hazel Blears resignation looked bad enough. The BBC's Nick Robinson called it "deliberate, calculated and with intent". It was a resignation designed to wound, and although Peter Mandelson was apparently heard commenting that "Hazel Blears is not exactly Michael Heseltine resigning over Westland", there is no doubt that her pre-emptive strike caused discomfort at Downing Street, and allowed the rumour mill to flourish. But last night at Westminster, there was little talk of another Cabinet resignation before the reshuffle, and it was possible to explain the Blears and Smith actions away as very individual decisions. James Purnell's surprise resignation on Thursday evening has certainly changed that. A Blairite, he has long been talked up as one of Labour's bright hopes for the future. Certainly ambitious, his extraordinary move shows the depth of the desperation of some of Labour's top figures. He clearly believes that Gordon Brown's continued leadership cannot be tolerated, and has now done his level best to bring it to an end.

But for all the shock value, Purnell is acting alone. That was made palpably clear by the fast reaction of Purnell's probable favourite for the Labour leadership, David Miliband. Miliband has moved fast to put clear distance between himself and Purnell - it was wrong to resign, and it is Purnell's misfortune to place his faith in such a weak reed. It is also Brown's possible good fortune - if a man in his current position can be said to have any good fortune at present. I am hesitant - particularly after having so badly mis-called the Speaker issue a coupe of weeks ago - to predict that Brown will stay, but the odds are still on that he will. It takes 70 Labour MPs to break cover and sign a nomination paper for there to be even the hope of a leadership election should Brown - as all good judges confirm he will- resist standing down. And they also need a candidate to back, and there is absolutely no clear indication as to who that might be. With Miliband confirming he will stay in the Cabinet, and Alan Johnson pouring cold water on his own leadership abilities, Brown does not look as if he is facing any heavyweight leadership challengers. And Purnell has also said he is no leadership challenger. But, whatever the subtleties of Gordon Brown's position tonight, he knows, none better, that 24 hours is a long time in politics.

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