Sunday 7 June 2009

Purnell resignation: how did George Osborne know?

The calm before the storm, and the calm before the calm, are difficult to tell apart without hindsight. But, were we precisely halfway through a regicide plot, one would expect the rebels to be making some dissonant noise, and that there might be one new development in the Sunday newspapers, instead of play-by-play accounts of the last 72 hours and even older news dominating the front-pages.

The only really eye-catching nugget for me was in the opening line in Matthew d'Ancona's column.

It was George Osborne who got the scoop. On Thursday, he told the 10am strategy meeting of the Tory high command that James Purnell was set to resign: his colleagues were sceptical. Twelve hours later, the prophecy came spectacularly true, as Mr Purnell marched out of Cabinet, urging Gordon Brown to step aside for the good of the Labour Party.

So how did Osborne know? The revelation could add to disgruntlement in Downing Street at finding out after the newspapers had their front-pages ready. Yet the reported chronology does not support the idea that news may have reached Osborne from those newspapers, according to The Times' night of the blunt knives account.

The resignation was hatched in total secrecy. Even one of his special advisers was unaware of Purnell’s plans. It is understood that Purnell made the final decision to go as late as 4pm on Thursday. He was in his Manchester constituency and drafted a resignation letter, dictating it over the telephone to a trusted aide who was sat at his computer in Whitehall. The letter, written on departmental headed notepaper, was handed to three national newspapers at about 6pm.

Certainly, the closely guarded bombshell did not leak before the allotted hour. (Though Labour candidate and blogger Anthony Painter says he was tipped off on Thursday afternoon).

So my guess is that Osborne didn't know. He may have been speculating about various possibilities - or guessing. Perhaps the revelation of the prophecy itself is an example of the 'black arts' - either to increase suspicion in Labour ranks or to enhance Osborne's reputation.

Perhaps Osborne did learn something on that yacht after all.


For the rest, the daftest headline of the weekend must surely be the Sunday Telegraph's splash - "Revealed: The Plot to Oust Brown". (When I was worked at The Observer, there were sporadic attempts to avoid the temptation to run "Revealed:" in the splash headline every weekend). To the extent that there is a scoop, it is that there was a coordinated plot over the resignations of four Ministers - Blears, Purnell, Flint and Hutton - before they went on to conspicuously fail to coordinate their resignations.

Also rather overtaken by events, even on its own account, is the Sunday Times splash - "Balls goes to war with Mandelson". The scoop here is the claim (denied as "completely untrue") that "earlier in the week ... Balls 'went nuclear and warned Gordon that if he didn't get the job he wouldn't cooperate with Peter any more" before, err, working hand-in-glove with Mandelson to save the PM after Purnell's resignation with both being "closely involved in Friday's Cabinet reshuffle", according to the same report.

Nor is the ghost of Derek Draper's in-box past particularly revealing. As Alex Smith suggests, Brown-Mandelson friction is hardly news. And yet the full correspondence reveals Mandelson - in private correspondence, while in exile in January 2008 - being rather nuanced, supportive of and sympathetic to Brown.

(Indeed, is it not rather touching to find Labour's practitioners of the political dark arts discussing not just presentation, but also social democratic theory, redistribution and the enabling state, with Peter Mandelson crediting Roy Hattersley as a forefather of New Labour as Labour's leading old right social democrat of the 1980s. I am sure Andy Coulson discusses Oakeshott too).

1 comment:

Sunder Katwala said...

The Telegraph's Ben Brogan says there are "lots of theories"

"*PS Matt claims George Osborne knew about the Purnell resignation 12 hours before the rest of us. Lots of theories around about that one, with the most popular being that his resignation letter was written by Phil Collins, Tony Blair's ex-speechwriter who now works for the Times".

Does that explain why George Osborne should find out from Phil Collins (who is Labour (uberblairite), though v.much an un-fan of the PM)? Collins is an excellent writer, but Purnell might have written his letter himself too, though he may well have discussed the possibility of resigning with Collins.

What other theories?