Fraser Nelson

Meet James Purnell: the best hope Labour has of avoiding disaster

Fraser Nelson says that the 38-year-old Work and Pensions Secretary is the best candidate to succeed Gordon Brown. Already surging ahead at his department, he has the gift of sounding like an ordinary human being — and he understands the Cameron Conservative party

Meet James Purnell: the best hope Labour has of avoiding disaster
Text settings

Fraser Nelson says that the 38-year-old Work and Pensions Secretary is the best candidate to succeed Gordon Brown. Already surging ahead at his department, he has the gift of sounding like an ordinary human being — and he understands the Cameron Conservative party

These days, it is scarcely possible to talk politics with a member of the government for more than ten minutes — if that — without The Question cropping up. Gordon Brown is doomed, runs the premise: he has hit rock bottom and carried on drilling. This cannot be allowed to go on. So what to do? Who is the successor? The job description is easy: someone hungry for power, undaunted by the odds, someone who could reassemble the New Labour electoral coalition. Finding the candidate is not so straightforward. The hour cometh. But where is the man?

It says much about the depth of Labour’s plight that such a wide range of candidates are being quietly assessed to match all manner of scenarios. One such scenario is that the party suffers a modest loss — and then plots a rapid return to office under fresh management after a single Tory term. But the current trajectory points more insistently to cataclysmic defeat, leaving behind the sort of political wreckage that takes a decade to repair. ‘It’s not about being Prime Minister anymore,’ one leading figure on Labour’s left told me. ‘It’s about saving our party.’

This can be done in three ways. A candidate could gather signatures from 71 Labour MPs before this year’s party conference in September in Manchester and then persuade two thirds of voting delegates to back a full-blown leadership contest. An alternative is a form of guerrilla warfare so intense that Team Brown, still the most brutally effective fighters in Westminster, would be forced out of Number 10, snarling, but with hands aloft. Finally, and least agreeably, the party can wait for Mr Brown to resign — as leader of the opposition.

For a long time, the party’s hopes have been pinned on David Miliband. But the Foreign Secretary’s fan base is starting to fracture, not least because he has conspicuously failed to woo the Parliamentary Labour Party. The accomplished egghead still frowns with impatience in interviews and select committee meetings when he thinks he is dealing with fools. This is not the stuff of a fledgling leadership campaign. One Cabinet member, who urged him to stand against Mr Brown last year, puts it this way. ‘I now feel David doesn’t necessarily want to be more than Foreign Secretary. He doesn’t look that hungry for the top job, not like Tony and Gordon did. There’s nothing wrong with that, the Foreign Office is a very high office of state. But it leaves us with a big problem, a real hole to fill.’

Nor is Mr Miliband a natural insurgent. One of his allies told me he would not try to depose Mr Brown because ‘David is not clinically insane’. Yet when David Cameron made his pitch to be leader of the Conservatives, he did so against all the odds. Well into the summer of 2005, the main question in the Cameron campaign was at what point they should call it a day and cash in their chips. What the malcontents in Labour’s ranks need is the sort of candidate willing to try his or her luck today — someone who grasps what Barack Obama, quoting Martin Luther King, calls ‘the fierce urgency of now’ — and to hell with the consequences.

When Mr Miliband considered running against Mr Brown last year, he was the undisputed leader of a group of Labour ministers who socialise with each other and share a political outlook. Sometimes called the ‘Primrose Hill set’, they include Liam Byrne, 37, the Home Office minister, Jim Murphy, 40, Europe Minister and James Purnell, 38, the Work and Pensions Secretary. They broadly share the Blairite worldview. This time last year the understanding within the group was that if anyone was to challenge Mr Brown, it would be Mr Miliband, already a well-established Cabinet minister at the time (Tony Blair himself, convinced that Mr Brown cannot win a general election, kept close tabs on the group, while conscious that it was a tall order to stand against Gordon). It was hardly a Granita pact — more of a ‘Stop Brown’ campaign team that was never activated.

If this loose-knit group has a common cause today, it has changed: to stop Ed Balls, Mr Brown’s 41-year-old protégé and the schools secretary. His decision to make a big political issue of the statutory admissions code and to target excellent state schools — especially faith schools — which he suspects of charging for places, was seen as a sign that he was already on manoeuvres. ‘Who is this aimed at?’ asks one Cabinet colleague. ‘Not at the public, but at the Labour party selectorate. Ed is not even subtle.’ His campaign particularly appalled the younger Blairites, who regarded it as a negation of everything Mr Blair sought to achieve. Good state schools are local beacons of aspirational Britain, they believe — and if Labour is seen as the enemy of such aspiration, then the electoral battle will be over.

This is the post-Blairite wing of the party, watching in horror as the electoral alliance Mr Blair built crumbles across the country. Yet part of the fallout from Mr Miliband’s decision not to stand last year was the collapse of the tacit deal that he would have a clear run in future contests. Since then, his friends and peers have been considering their own positions — particularly as the Brown government is unravelling faster than even the most ardent über-Blairite could have expected. Mr Byrne, a former businessman, has just three parliamentary years behind him: he has the managerial expertise, good instincts, and certainly the ambition, but lacks the track record. Which brings us to Mr Purnell.

To tip the 38-year-old Work and Pensions Secretary for the leadership now may seem as absurd as tipping the then 38-year-old Mr Cameron seemed three years ago. Yet since he succeeded Peter Hain at the Department of Work and Pensions, his name has started to be factored routinely into the what-if scenarios being played around Westminster. Many laugh this off instantly, regarding him as a smooth lightweight who prefers tailoring to politicking. But those who do know him well regard the prospect as eminently plausible — and believe that he may leap over Mr Miliband’s head, just as Mr Blair overtook Mr Brown in the early Nineties.

Mr Purnell has successfully dodged the limelight for most of his time in politics. ‘I told him to keep his head down, work hard and let the results speak for themselves,’ said one senior Labour strategist (who also begged me, for Mr Purnell’s sake, not to write up his prospects). ‘To reach Cabinet at his age focuses perhaps more attention on him than he realises. But he’s playing it well.’

Two characteristics set him apart. One is that he cannot be described as a political obsessive. As Max Hastings wrote of Mr Blair recently, he does a good impression of a human being. Mr Balls and Mr Miliband can often sound like the senior policy wonks they once were. Like Mr Blair before him, Mr Purnell speaks as if he has just arrived in the political game, and is on the same verbal wavelength as the rest of the public. On Question Time last week he looked like an ordinary person who had somehow ended up defending a wretched government. Instead of reeling off a litany of defensive, cooked statistics and alleged Labour achievements, he conceded the humour in the dreadful polls and the scale of the predicament facing him and his colleagues. This ability to avoid the deathly countenance of the professional politician is some accomplishment, given that his CV is that of the quintessential Blairite apparatchik — think tanks, journalism and a spell as a special adviser.

Next, he has an unusual g rasp of detail. The private firms which have dealings with him about welfare-to-work placements say he has a striking knowledge of the finer detail of this devilishly complex area. And he understood the politics in all this at once. One of his first moves at the DWP was to woo back David Freud, the former Blair adviser who denounced incapacity benefit as ‘economic house arrest’. This was a blow for the Conservatives, who were about to claim the Freud agenda as their own.

Contrast this with Mr Balls’s attempted attack on Tory education reform on Monday, which was an almost total failure. Mr Purnell has taken better aim at his quarry. One may accuse him of plagiarism, offering a diluted version of a real Tory policy. But within a few weeks, he has denied the Conservatives the clear lead they had threatened to open up on welfare reform. If the Brown government were as effective across the board, his party might not be languishing with the lowest share of the vote since the introduction of universal suffrage. Ironically, image may be the biggest problem for this fashion-conscious minister. ‘If he wanted to conceal how serious he is, he couldn’t do better than those awful sideburns,’ says one friend. A Cabinet colleague says of him: ‘He is relaxed, and has a life outside politics which a lot of us don’t. But his public persona is a little too relaxed.’ His fling with a Newsnight producer caused him both personal and political embarrassment.

He looks and dresses like a member of the fashionable London media world through which he cut a swath before entering parliament — he was, for a while, head of corporate planning at the BBC, which many regarded as a non-job. When a hospital superimposed his image on a group photograph after he arrived late, the result cemented many suspicions that he is in fact a Blairite clone with no substance. ‘Purnell’s cardboard cut-out would be a better leader than Purnell,’ says one shadow Cabinet member.

But low expectations can be a weapon in any leadership election, as Mr Cameron learnt. The criticisms of Mr Purnell as an airhead would be dangerous if he were struggling in his job, if there were daily crises at the DWP. But he has already shown himself able to do a better job than his predecessor. This is why bookmakers quote odds on this relative unknown, if only at 8/1. Mr Miliband is the clear favourite at 5/2 — which is all the more reason not to back him. Mr Blair is an exception to the general rule that frontrunners don’t win leadership elections. Ask Michael Heseltine and David Davis.

It is said by some that it is ‘too soon’ for Mr Purnell, but Labour has little scope to take its time and allow its future talent to mature. Mr Brown is struggling to respond to the Conservative attack, quite unable to understand why the Tories are successful. He insists that Cameron and his gang are just ‘public school bullies’ with a secret plan to tear apart the welfare state and he marvels that the public cannot see this. ‘One of our great advantages is that Gordon doesn’t have a clue what we’re about,’ says one shadow Cabinet member.

Mr Purnell has a much more measured opinion of the Tory revival: unlike Mr Brown and Mr Balls he has never dismissed Mr Cameron out of hand, not least because he knows many of the Cameroons well. For this reason, the Tory high command increasingly speaks of Mr Purnell as the man to watch — and to worry about. Unlike the PM, he understands the enemy he is facing.

The Labour party has a history of holding on to bad leaders for too long — Michael Foot for three years, Neil Kinnock for nine. ‘It’s time to get up off the floor,’ Mr Purnell said in a lecture to the Fabian Society earlier this month. But his party’s instinct is to adopt the foetal position. The free-market Tories specialise in the creative destruction of leaders. Labour’s cautious instincts may protect Mr Brown yet.

The best leaders normally start their campaigns being ridiculed by the press. At the start of the Tory 1975 leadership contest, when Edward Heath stood for re-election, the Economist decreed Margaret Thatcher to be ‘precisely the sort of candidate... who ought to be able to stand, and lose, harmlessly’. This reflected the prevailing Westminster wisdom. Only one publication saw the virtue in Mrs Thatcher and backed her before the first ballot: the one you hold in your hands now.

In last week’s Spectator, Matthew Parris offered a draft resignation speech for a member of Mr Brown’s Cabinet. The text was crafted for someone who would, without undue self-aggrandisement, suggest that the party needed a new voice, and that it could be his own. It is precisely the sort of speech that Mr Purnell could make. The question is not only whether he is willing to make that perilous leap, but whether Labour is prepared to listen to such a speech, from such a candidate. If so, it may yet have an chance of survival at the next election. If not, it will already be well on way to the long haul of the wilderness years.