04 June 2009

Here Come The Drums

The polls have closed. And Gordon Brown has lost another member of the Cabinet: Jacqui Smith's intention to depart emerged two days ago; Hazel Blears quit yesterday in a departure timed to offer the most embarrassment to her now former gaffer; James Purnell has gone at a slightly less awkward time but with devastating effect.

Frankly, Jacqui Smith's been on borrowed time for ages - no one would have noticed had she just gone.

Blears, on the other hand, did herself no favours. By leaving 24 hours before polling day and just a short while before Prime Minister's Questions, her departure was nothing short of a political suicide attack, and her pledge of support for Labour in the elections rang hollow. It certainly rang hollow in her constituency, whose residents were vox popped on North West Tonight last night. Every last one of those shown on film was hostile to her.

But Purnell? Well, firstly, he was direct: he has made it clear that he wants Brown out and will no longer serve in his Government. And, compounding his claim that he has done it for the Labour Party, has waited until 2201 hours before going public, showing a little more decency than Blears and casting himself as a knight in shining red armour. And Brown is reportedly stunned by the decision.

I think everyone was expecting a Macmillan-esque Night of the Long Knives to take place on Monday, with perhaps a third of the Cabinet being sacked following an embarrassing election result, just as in 1962. Instead, those same knives have been turned the other way: members of the Cabinet are planting them in Gordon Brown's back.

Now, before it has even begun, Brown has three vacancies to fill: he can anticipate Jacqui Smith's departure, while he now has Blears and Purnell's to respond to. Further, rumours tonight indicate that David Miliband could go tomorrow. That creates four slots, and it's not clear who would fill them.

And Brown faces conflicting pressures.

Firstly, think about who has already gone: Blears and Purnell, in charge of the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Department for Work and Pensions respectively. Now, we hear how the government is "getting on with the job" in this time of recession. Yet when dole queues are growing, and more people on benefits, when people are still in need of decent housing and in the wake of local government elections to higher-tier councils and new unitary bodies such as in Cornwall, some of the two key departments at this specific moment are rudderless. Therefore, one can argue that Brown has to fill the gaps immediately.

On the other hand, this reshuffle was inevitable and it was going to be triggered by the elections, the results of which are not yet known and won't be fully known and understood until Monday. Now we may have a broad idea of how things are going and we may well know that it's bad for the Government, but it will be around 84 hours before we really know just how bad bad has got for Gordon Brown. On that basis, Monday evening is when the reshuffle ought to happen, and junior ministers will just have to pick up the slack over the weekend.

So now, we wait and see. Will the reshuffle take place on Friday or on Monday? Will Miliband quit? Just how bad have the results been for Labour? Will anyone else emerge from the woodwork? Will Gordon Brown opt to shuffle out? Will circumstances force the General Election that the SNP and Plaid wish to see?

And with him being linked to everything else, will Roberto Martinez end up in the Cabinet?

Of course not: he'll head back where he belongs, to the warm, welcoming arms of Dave Whelan and the Latics.

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