James Purnell’s shock departure from the House of Commons is more than simply the act of an ambitious man who has seen his future prospects dashed. Until recently tipped as the ‘Leader after next’ by many on the Left, Purnell is a determined man and thinker whose own instincts must have told him that, with patience, he could one day earn the crown.
I’m sort of vaguely connected to Purnell through friends. When two years ago I had a go at him at the old nby site for the ‘stripped in’ photograph episode, several of those friends told me the piece was unjust. Not so Purnell himself, a man intelligent enough to realise quickly that he should treat the incident lightly. He now calls it ‘my photoshop episode’, and for that he earns my respect if nothing else.
He is that rare thing among Blairites, a chap who thinks about not just unfairness and injustice in society, but also about the ramifications of doing too much or not enough. He wrote an excellent piece for Tribune last year on where the Left ought to go; and his decision now to retrain as a community worker, undertake ‘other public service’ and contribute to Labour philosophy suggests he has lost faith in the current Labour hierarchy’s will to achieve his aims. If so, it reflects what others in his orbit have suggested very recently.
“He doesn’t believe in Brown” one told me, “and thinks Blairism is irrelevant now we’re in a completely different world. Also he never quite forgave David [Miliband] for being wimped out by Mandy”. This is a reference back to Purnell’s resignation as a Cabinet minister. At the time, The Slog reported that Purnell had expected others to join him behind an anti-Brown standard.
This does leave Miliband with a problem of how he could get enough Blairites round him if (as some have suggested) he is asked by the Queen to form a Government with Libdem support in the event of a Hung Parliament. But The Slog’s view remains that this is unlikely for two reasons: the Tories will probably win outright, and Nick Clegg doesn’t want to “revive a corpse” as one of his senior colleagues put it the other day.
This isn’t the end of Purnell in public life. He remains as ambitious as ever, and entertains some interesting ideas about how constitutional and electoral change could act as a catalyst for more radical groupings in Britain. If it does, he would still like to be a driving force across that changed landscape.
He remains a man to watch – and certainly, a man whose writings are worth a read.