Peter Hoskin

Defending his own premiership

The Times’s story of how Bob Ainsworth came to be Defence Secretary is equal parts extraordinary and disheartening.  Here are the key passages:

“Mr Ainsworth’s predecessor, John Hutton, had indicated to Mr Brown in mid-May that he was thinking of leaving the Government. Mr Hutton, recently remarried, had a compelling family reason for wanting to step down. But Mr Brown, preoccupied with the elections and the possibility of a leadership challenge, appears to have spent little time thinking about the vacancy. It wasn’t until around noon the day after the polls that he began to focus on who should oversee Britain’s military and its engagement in Afghanistan.

In the midst of a reshuffle carried out against the backdrop of political crisis, a weakened Prime Minister had fewer candidates with Cabinet experience willing to serve and more vacancies than he had expected. Although the field for Defence Secretary was crowded, only one was a serving Cabinet member. Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary, had made little secret of his desire for the job. John Spellar, a senior whip and former Armed Forces Minister, was another name pressed on Mr Brown. However, it was Mr Knight who emerged as a front-runner. His candidature became so well advanced that the appointment came within an hour of being announced, according to one senior figure.

None of the three candidates, however, delivered much political capital to Mr Brown as he fought for his survival. In this fevered atmosphere it was the departure of the Farming Minister that proved decisive. Jane Kennedy’s resignation prompted fears among Mr Brown’s advisers that he was losing the support of a faction of Labour MPs to which she belongs. Generally on the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the group of MPs includes Alistair Darling, Geoff Hoon — and Mr Ainsworth.

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