Brown's grip is weakening by the hour

Allister Heath
HE may not be a household name, but James Purnell, the former secretary of state for pensions, was a key figure at the heart of Gordon Brown&rsquo;s cabinet, a standard-bearer for what is left of the Blairite, reformist wing of the Labour Party. So his shock resignation at 10pm last night has dealt nothing less than a devastating blow to Brown, whose grip on the levers of power is weakening by the day. The move should be seen as part of a gradual campaign of resignations by key Labour figures, all intending to put maximum pressure on Brown in a bid to unseat him, and replace him with a more electable figure.<br /><br />Labour MPs and ministers are terrified: they have spent the past few days in their constituencies, canvassing for yesterday&rsquo;s elections. They are now all too aware of the depth of the revulsion so many voters feel towards their government, and their leader in particular. When last night Graham Allen, a Labour MP, said that most of his colleagues want Brown to go, he was not exaggerating; there is a growing consensus among backbenchers that the prime minister should resign &ldquo;swiftly, decisively&rdquo;.<br /><br />At this stage, the party&rsquo;s favourite replacement appears to be Alan Johnson, the health secretary, who by all accounts has already put in place a campaign team, led by sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe. The dynamics at this stage are far too fluid to allow accurate predictions to be made; suffice to say that if David Miliband, the foreign secretary, were to resign this morning, as some sources in Westminster were suggesting last night, the momentum against Brown could become irresistible.<br /><br />We will have to wait until Sunday night, when the results of the European election are finally released, to find out the full magnitude of Brown&rsquo;s defeat at the hands of an angry electorate. But politics is now in a state of flux and even the financial markets are beginning to pay notice. A false rumour at lunchtime yesterday that Brown had resigned sent the pound tumbling by 3 cents against the dollar in seconds. The reason was not that dealers would miss him &ndash; in fact, loud cheers broke out on at least one trading floor &ndash; but that investors hate uncertainty and rudderless governments.<br /><br />There are now few options left open to the PM. Recruiting Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children, to replace chancellor Alistair Darling would be tantamount to the politics of the bunker; as the architect of the post-1997 economic model, Balls is one of the most over-rated Labour apparatchiks and is directly responsible for the defective policies that have brought Britain to its knees. In any case, Darling doesn&rsquo;t want to be moved; he will do his best to take down Brown with him if he has to (unless, of course, he decides to do a Purnell himself before the day is out).<br /><br />For the Tories, the best possible outcome would be for a wounded Brown to cling on to power for another year. While they would still probably win an election regardless of who is leading the Labour Party, their majority would be much reduced if somebody like Johnson were at the helm. Much of the government&rsquo;s unpopularity is now directly attributable to Brown, who is disliked by most of the public, especially in England, according to polls, focus groups and all canvassing returns. Politics is once again the biggest story in town.<br /><br />