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What next for Britain's battered government?

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell on Thursday became the third senior minister to quit the British government this week. Purnell called on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to stand down to improve the party's chances of winning a general election due within a year.

world Updated: Jun 05, 2009 14:46 IST

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell on Thursday became the third senior minister to quit the British government this week.

Purnell called on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to stand down to improve the party's chances of winning a general election due within a year. His resignation coincided with the end of polling for European and local elections in which the ruling Labour party is expected to suffer a drubbing.

So what will be the fate of the Labour government and Brown, battered by recession and an expenses scandal?

How significant is Purnell's departure?

Very important. Other ministers could follow his lead. Purnell had been expected to retain a senior post in the government, unlike interior minister Jacqui Smith and communities minister Hazel Blears who resigned this week but had been seen as jumping before they were pushed out in a reshuffle.

Purnell, aged 39 and seen as a rising star of the party, is also the first to go public with their criticism of Brown, dubbing him an electoral liability.

How will Brown respond?

He will try to reshuffle his government as early as Friday.

Brown must reassert his authority and a reshuffle could draw the sting from some of the negative headlines from Purnell's departure and local election results due on Friday and European results on Sunday night.

However, Brown has three cabinet vacancies to fill before he makes any other changes. There had been speculation that Brown ally Ed Balls will be promoted to replace finance minister Alistair Darling. There is also talk, however, that Darling will resign from the government if he is offered a less prominent post.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has been tipped as a possible successor to Foreign Secretary David Miliband and the recall of a former cabinet veteran like David Blunkett could help to restore party discipline.

Both Miliband and Mandelson have said they are happy to continue in their current roles.

So will Brown survive?

It's looking increasingly unlikely.

As well as the ministerial resignations, there is talk of a plot by rebel backbench members of parliament to call on Brown to quit.

One thing might save him.

A change of leader would add to opposition clamour for an early general election in which Labour appears certain to lose its 12-year grip on power. Brown replaced Tony Blair mid-term in 2007 without a general election and analysts believe Labour could not change prime minister again without calling a poll.

Some Labour MPs might think it is in their interest to soldier on with Brown until next year in the hope that the economy might pick up and their election prospects improve.

If not Brown, then who?

Health Secretary Alan Johnson is seen as the front-runner. Johnson has the media skills that Brown lacks but critics say he is vague on policy.

Cerebral Foreign Secretary Miliband might be another contender were Labour to look to a younger generation.