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To go or not to go..

March 30th, 2009

Isn’t now the time to draw some distance?

Two of my favourite political writers, Allegra Stratton in the Guardian and James Forsyth over at the Spectator’s Coffee House blog, have picked up a tentative alliance that they believe is being woven between Jon Cruddas and James Purnell, with a view to the Labour leadership.

Leaving aside the technicality that there is no vacancy, and no election may be called for over a year, all eyes it seems are on the battle that will wage to succeed Gordon Brown when he leaves office and presumably resigns as Party Leader.

I have plenty of time for Jon Cruddas – he comes across as a decent and honest man, and I liked his insistance that, if elected Deputy Leader of the Party, he would not want or accept the postion of Deputy PM. He has an authenticity, an of-the-Party feel about him, that is perhaps less obvious with some of the other candidates (perhaps all except Johnson). I presume that he still wants to reform the Party from Harriet Harman’s office, and that he recognises this can best be achieved by acting as kingmaker – strengthening the hand of an otherwise able candidate who could never appeal to Cruddas’ base of support.

If he has picked Purnell, and stranger alliances were mooted last Autumn (David Miliband and Alan Johnson, anyone?), I think he has picked well. Purnell has timed his ascent well, refused to be moved from the DWP last October when there were rumours of a reshuffle, and has acquitted himself better than most of his Cabinet colleagues in the last 12 months. I was alarmed that he removed his sideburns on the advice of a media consultant (those leeches are not friendly to hirsute preauricular expression), but compared to the competition I believe he is saleable to the public – his weakness is the open question of whether he has a powerbase within the party.

There is one thing I cannot understand. Given that Labour failing to retain their majority at the next election (followed by a leadership contest) is considered almost certain by most, and given that association with the Brown regime will be toxic for many of those candidates, why are none of the hopefuls accepting some time on the backbenches for the sake of credibility?

I cannot feign a tenth of the insight into Labour Party politics as someone such as HenryG, but it seems to me a general rule that when unpopular governments fall, their leaders and those close to them are tarred and damaged. Conversely, on the rare occasions that government ministers have seen fit to resign on principle, they are lionised both within the party and by the voting public. John Denham was largely unknown to the public prior to his resignation over the Iraq War. Robin Cook’s reputation was certainly not hurt by his preparedness to speak truth to power, even if that rehabilitation in some quarters was expedited by his untimely death.

There are some candidates, Harriet Harman in particular, who will by neccessity and temperament retain seniority as long as possible and seek to consolidate their status in the leadership election. Some, like David Miliband, could perhaps not afford to build from the backbenches – to abandon the pretence of being the heir-apparent would not serve him well. Yet for a comparatively young Secretary of State, who can already claim to have run one of the largest departments, the frontbench of a dying regime has little to offer.

I can understand that James Purnell has work he must want to finish at the DWP, and I can understand how counter-intuitive it must seem to seek demotion as part of an aspiration to leadership, but I honestly believe he would be best served by creating distance between himself and the Prime Minister as soon as possible. He has built a media profile, but they are not yet sick of the sight of him. He has gained top-level experience, but not yet run a department into the ground. If he steps back now, with the support of the Cruddas wing, I think he could steal the leadership from Harriet Harman and the other hopefuls.

It would be bold, but then that is the mantra that always worked for the Blairite wing: at their best, when at their boldest.

Morus






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