By Keith Weir - Analysis
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown shied away from replacing his finance minister in a government reshuffle on Friday, seeking unity rather than driving through more radical changes.
Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell quit on Thursday, urging Brown to resign to improve the party’s chances of avoiding defeat at the hands of the Conservatives in a general election due within a year.
Defense Secretary John Hutton said on Friday he would stand down, the fourth senior minister to quit this week.
What are the effects of the changes?
Brown, weakened by the resignations, has backed down on plans to replace finance minister Alistair Darling with his long-time close ally Ed Balls. Balls is a divisive figure and economists had criticized the wisdom of changing the finance minister during the worst recession since World War Two.
Economists said they expected a Conservative finance minister to be in the job after the election. Britain will run a budget deficit of 175 billion pounds ($282 billion) this year and taxes will ultimately have to be raised and spending cut to balance the books.
Media reports said Health Secretary Alan Johnson, the favorite to succeed Brown, was moving to the role of interior minister, one of the most senior jobs in parliament but also a poisoned chalice in recent years because it is often the target of public criticism. Johnson has supported Brown publicly when many were saying he should replace the prime minister.
Political commentators were looking to see the role given to Foreign Secretary David Miliband, tipped as another possible future leader of the party. Miliband was resisting efforts to move him and, were he left disappointed, he could emerge as a challenger to Brown.
He said on Friday that it was a day for working, rather than resigning.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson, who has been seen as a replacement for Miliband, is another pivotal figure. He has been leading efforts to get the party to unite behind Brown.
Early reports suggested that both Miliband and Mandelson would stay in their positions, suggesting that Brown’s reshuffle will be more about filling posts left empty by resignations rather than a wholesale shake-up of the cabinet.
HOW SIGNIFICANT IS HUTTON‘S DEPARTURE?
Not as important as that of Purnell. Hutton, like Purnell, is seen on the centrist side of the party, backing the line taken by former prime minister Tony Blair, who often feuded with Brown. However, Hutton has indicated that he plans to go quietly and not make a public attack on Brown. Media said he would not seek re-election to the next parliament.
Reports have said that up to 75 Labour members of parliament (MPs) could call for Brown to quit if results of European elections on Sunday night are as bad as feared. How they respond to the reshuffle will help to decide Brown’s fate.
Any change of leader would add to the clamor for an early general election, probably in October. Some Labour MPs might think it is in their interest to soldier on with Brown until next year in the hope that the economy might pick up and their election prospects improve.
Editing by Kevin Liffey