As I wandered through parliament on Monday evening I bumped into a former minister who had just come out of the do-or-die parliamentary Labour Party meeting. He reached in his pocket and showed me a text message on his mobile from a constituency activist: “So it’s a slow, lingering death then,” it said.
This was the week the Labour Party finally, definitively admitted defeat. The European elections demonstrated that Labour can’t win under Gordon Brown’s leadership. James Purnell’s courage in being the first Cabinet minister to voice what his colleagues know to be the case was met with shuffling feet and bowed heads. The expressions of loyalty from those who remain are the hollow cries of the already crushed. Too many conversations have been had by too many ministers with too many journalists about the inadequacies of the Prime Minister to believe the words of solidarity. David Miliband’s protested on the Today programme that his generation will not let the party down. With the exception of Purnell, they already have.
Meanwhile, the machinery of government has become dysfunctional. We were already facing a period when the political cycle made any practical policy achievement nigh on impossible. Purdah for the European elections will shortly be followed by the summer recess, which will seamlessly flow into the party conference season. By the time MPs return, Westminster will be in full general election mode and nothing will be possible.
The emergency reshuffle only makes the situation worse. New secretaries of state now have to learn their new briefs which will take them well into summer holiday time. This is potentially disastrous in the departments which have been charged with recession-busting initiatives. The Budget left James Purnell with a pot of £1.7 billion to spend on job creation at the Department of Work and Pension. He was charged with driving through the Future Jobs Fund, designed to put tens of thousands of long-term unemployed back to work. Even Yvette Cooper’s giant intellect will be seriously challenged by the task in hand. But there is also change at Communities and Local Government, responsible for the government's empty shop initiatives. The Department for Innovation Universities and Skills, which was supposed to deliver the national internship scheme, Graduate Talent Pool, no longer exists.
Brown himself, never good on self-knowledge, is no longer able to see the absurdity of the situation. He told Monday’s meeting of the PLP that he will mend his ways, become more humble, listen to the concerns of backbenchers. Yet, in order to get his point across he ensured the meeting was packed with his diehard loyalists, including a collection of hoary old peers from next door as if to ram home his anti-democratic credentials. In a final gesture to the fates, Lord Kinnock was wheeled out to rally support behind the fatally wounded leader. Next week: a masterclass in how to lose an election from the last Labour leader to lead the party to defeat.