Purnell to quit as MP – what does he mean by that?

Well, there’s a turn-up: James Purnell – former secretary of state for work and pensions, the man who almost brought down Gordon Brown, and seemingly a strong contender for the Labour leadership after the next election – has announced he will be quitting Parliament at the general election. Here’s how The Times reports it:

Labour insiders said that he was telling his Stalybridge and Hyde local party that with regret he was standing down to seek new challenges. …

After his resignation Mr Purnell returned to the back benches and has played a big part in running the Demos centre-left think-tank. But friends say that he has become increasingly disenchanted with Parliament and life as an MP. Insiders said that Mr Purnell had nothing lined up for his life after Parliament but there will be no shortage of offers.

He was one of the MPs most associated with the Blair project. He was Mr Blair’s main speechwriter when he was Shadow Home Secretary — the post where his strong performance made him a racing certainty to become leader after John Smith died.

The paper reports it as a blow for David Miliband (it’s pretty much compulsory for everything involving Labour now to be reported as a blow to Mr Miliband Snr). I’m not sure I follow their reasoning; from a purely practical point of view, one of his most likely rivals from the Blairite wing of the party – and a man who was actually prepared to put his head above the parapet – is now out of the way.

It will be a blow, though, for those Labour members who were hoping a ‘dream ticket’ of Mr Purnell and Jon Cruddas might ape the success the Blair/Prescott duumvirate achieved for the party in the 1990s.

Perhaps the bigger blow, though, is to the role of the professional politician. Whether you agree with Mr Purnell or not, like him or not, he is intelligent, articulate, youthful: he adds to public life, and will presumably wish to contribute to it still. What does it say about Parliament, or about the life of an MP, that he would much rather operate from beyond Westminster?

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  • This is a highly significant announcement.

    Purnell – a professional politician if ever I saw one – calling it a day, so far as the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is concerned, at age 39. He says he sees more to life than being in the HoC – when he has, according to his constituency chairman: shown “commitment and determination [and] been greatly valued by members of the local Labour Party, as well as in the wider constituency”.

    Purnell sought Gordon Brown’s resignation because he believed, with Brown as Labour Party leader, a Conservative victory was “more, not less likely”. Now he takes his leave of the HoC because – is this too much to read into it? – a Labour party revival, following a General Election defeat, is less and less likely.

    Apparently Peter Robinson (shurely some mistake), Chair of Purnell’s local party in Stalybridge and Hyde, “understand[s] completely the reasons for James’ resignation and…wish[es] him every success in the future”. Success in the future, in Purnell’s estimation, clearly isn’t linked to being or trying to be a leading member of his own party!

    One of the things, which makes Purnell’s decision, at this stage in the parliamentary/electoral cycle, so significant – in my view – is that he is, by his own account: “…looking forward to completing [work] at Demos”. Where his aim has been “to contribute ideas to public service and to the Labour Party.”

    This is a case where it is important to pay close attention to what Purnell does rather than what he says. For someone, whose life has been premised on being and staying in the frontline of UK politics – faced with Labour GE defeat and a minor role in the aftermath, to say that “I’ve realised I don’t want to have spent all my life in frontline politics”, strikes me as unmistakeable evidence that he has concluded that, if he were to stay, he would be nowhere near the frontline for years to come. That’s quite a statement – from someone who has worked so hard to be and stay in the frontline – to make about your own and your party’s prospects in the the months and years ahead.

    I’m no fan Purnell’s approach to British politics but I don’t doubt his exceptionally well informed and prescient judgement about the condition of his own party and its political project.

  • That could well be his strategy, Tom. But he is very foolish if it is. No one in the Labour Party is going to be very impressed if he skips 10 years of hard slog in opposition and then turns up again expecting to be elected leader. Westminster has a habit of moving on very quickly from the current Bright Young Thing to the next one.

    If Andy Burnham ends up as leader I wouldnt be too surprised to see him reappear in some sort of advisory role.

  • Bryan Gould decided to do something else with his life after not seeing a clear role for himself in govt. Why shouldn’t Purnell do the same? The Tories are likely to win big and be in office for 12 years. 12 years in opposition do not appeal to everyone. Perhaps we LDs have difficulty understanding just how important power is to some politicians?

  • I know the title is a quote from someone, but I can’t think who.

  • Yes it’s fun to bash MPs from other parties, but actually I thnik Purnell was one of the better MPs of the House, and to call him opportunist or careerist after giving up his career is surely disingenous, and most probably wrong. Of course we have no idea what’s going on in his head now as we did before – most people thought he was biding time to become leader, which has now obviously been disproven.

    The suggestion that not now – but wait – in ten years! he is aiming to return as leader is absurd. I agree with Stephen Tall – this says more about Westminster and the state of parliament than Purnell.

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