In between dozes on Friday afternoon I watched Gordon Brown’s press conference about the reshuffle. Early in the Q&A ITV News’ Tom Bradby got to ask a question. Here’s my transcript (from rewatching on iPlayer, so believed to be accurate):
Tom Bradby: Prime Minister, you say you want to be candid so can I ask you a very simple, straightforward question? Do you acknowledge today that you wanted to sack your Chancellor and were simply unable to do so?
PM: No. No. Alistair Darling, as I said in the House of Commons only two days ago, is a Chancellor who [a few minutes of blather]…
Tom Bradby: You said you were going to be candid and you’re just not being candid are you because everyone in this room knows that that is what you wanted to do. Every .. all your closest aides have been going round Westminster this week saying that you wanted to sack the Chancellor and at the last minute you just haven’t been able to do it.
PM: No. Alistair Darling is not only, as i said in the House of Commons, a very good personal friend of mine, and I’ve known him for many years, and you can talk to him as well, but he’s also been a great Chancellor, look [blather]…
Tom Bradby and other journalists have been told repeatedly over the last week that Alistair Darling was on his way out. This wasn’t uninformed speculation, it was off-the-record briefing. Not by disgruntled civil servants, but by Downing Street. This was, in effect, official leaking.
Brown did not then sack Darling in the reshuffle; Darling refused any alternative job in cabinet (all being demotions), and Brown caved to stop Darling “doing a Howe” in his resignation speech.
Brown’s doomed now, I think. He cannot indirectly brief journos all week about sacking his Chancellor, then fail to do so, and stand brazenly in front of those same journos and claim he never had any intention of doing so. The journalists know what they were told; they know what the plans were (and they reported them). They know that Brown stood there, claiming to be candid, and lied to them, plain and simple. One of those journalists at least must now be working on a story about this. There is, at least, a story about the continuing existence of the lobby system.
The amusing thing is that Alistair Darling knows – as do Brown and Mandelson, and the rest of the cabinet, and all those journos – that he can bring Brown down whenever he wants: Darling’s own resignation would seal Brown’s fate. Though it has to be said that at this point the resignation of any other cabinet minister would probably have the same effect. And if the Euro election results are as bad as they might be, Brown might be out anyway.
It’s going to be an interesting week at Westminster.