At the end of the worst week of his political life, Gordon Brown is still standing – just. The question is whether he can still govern. That must be answered because, with the challenges it is facing, Britain desperately needs a government.
After a wipe-out at the polls and a walk-out from his cabinet, the prime minister’s authority is in shreds. As Friday’s bungle of a reshuffle demonstrated, Mr Brown plainly does not have the power to choose his own cabinet. Conservative leader David Cameron’s jibe that ministers were reshuffling themselves was a bull’s-eye.
Jacqui Smith, home secretary, and Hazel Blears, communities secretary, would have had to go anyway. After the expenses scandal they were damaged goods. But they chose the timing. James Purnell, telling the prime minister to step aside as he resigned as work and pensions secretary, chose the terms of debate.
That put paid to Mr Brown’s plans to put his ally, schools minister Ed Balls, into the Treasury. It would be nice to say the prime minister had followed the advice of these columns in keeping Alistair Darling as chancellor but, in truth, he had no choice. David Miliband, weakened by his half-hearted bid to unseat Mr Brown last summer, could in these circumstances dig in and refuse to give up his tenure at the Foreign Office.
Many choices Mr Brown was able to make look hollow. Bigging up Lord Mandelson’s business department is a bit like bringing the mountain to Mohammed. His signing of Sir Alan Sugar as “enterprise tsar” is a last gasp of gimmickry: government meltdown as reality TV – which is what Westminster resembled all week.
The loss of John Hutton at defence – a minister on top of his brief, with British troops at war in Afghanistan and a defence review ahead – demands proper explanation. On its sixth defence secretary, fourth foreign secretary and sixth home secretary, Labour comes across as, well, careless.
Mr Brown, for his part, evinces no sense of purpose beyond survival and shows no sense of direction beyond averting an early test at the polls. He could just limp on. It is not just party rules that make regicide difficult in the Labour party; yet again, this rebellion of all the talents has been willing to wound and yet afraid to strike.
The stench of fin de siécle round Mr Brown resembles the way John Major was undermined towards the end of his mandate. Mr Major submitted himself to a “back me or sack me” leadership contest and won. The prime minister should now do the same.
He has failed to reassert his authority in the cabinet reshuffle. He faces humiliation in the European elections. He should show he commands a clear majority in his party or step down and clear the way for a general election.