Even before Work & Pensions Secretary James Purnell’s shock resignation last night, the Westminster grapevine was alive with claims that Darling was going to be kicked sideways to make room for Gordon Brown’s close ally Ed Balls as Chancellor. Balls, goes the gossip, is preferred by the PM because he is ‘more political’.
But since Darling seems to have managed to hang onto his job through some of the most chaotic few days in recent political history, perhaps he is more political than his colleagues give him credit for. A view which his apparent rejection of the job of Home Secretary reinforces. The Home Office has been the graveyard of many a political talent, a position so professionally perilous that it makes being Chancellor of the Exchequer – even in a recession – look like a breeze by comparison.
Even more extraordinary is the news that The Apprentice's 'Surallen' Sugar has been appointed Entrepreneurship Tsar - a last ditch attempt to generate some positive PR if ever we saw one. Since Sugar's re-invention as a reality TV star, his business interests have not exactly been thundering ahead - indeed, most of his money is now in property, hardly the most enterprsing of sectors.
As far Darling, he probably doesn’t have too many friends in business after his handling of the recession and the huge budget deficits he has run up. But on the other hand some consistency at the Treasury may not be a bad thing.
In the end it may have been a simple shortage of suitably loyal allies that forced PM Brown to let Darling stay put. But he did manage to find someone to run the Home Office – former health secretary Alan Johnson will replace Jacqui Smith, who quit following the expenses scandal. John Denham replaces Hazel Blears as Communities Secretary, and Defence Secretary John Hutton is also leaving the cabinet, but says he remains loyal to Brown.
Ed Balls may have missed out on a new job, but his wife Yvette Cooper does rather better. She goes from Treasury Chief Secretary to replace James Purnell at the DWP. Liam Byrne from the cabinet office takes over her old job.
It’s a measure of the flat panic abroad in the corridors of power today that this emergency reshuffle seems to be happening on an ad hoc basis. The exact make up of the new cabinet remains unclear, as Brown struggles to demonstrate that he still retains the following of sufficient big Labour names to carry on as PM.
If you ever wanted proof that Harold Wilson ‘s four-decade old observation that ‘A week is a long time in politics’ remains bang up to date, the extraordinary events of the last few days would do very nicely. Since Tuesday the government has lost five ministers - Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears, Beverley Hughes , Tom Watson and last night James Purnell. Six if you include Hutton.
Even Gordon Brown’s staunchest supporters must be coming to the conclusion that the end game of the New Labour project is now under way. Watch this space.