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New Labour: Chainsaws out, maybe Contactpoint, too

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Comment There aren't any fresh similes left to describe what's happening to New Labour, but it's safe to say it's looking more than a little peaky. A crucial few days lie ahead, and in a week the political landscape is going to look very different.

Two days ago, the overriding issue for UK political commentators was the forthcoming cabinet reshuffle. The question was posed traditionally, in terms of who was out, who in, and what the implication of any change might be. Since then, two new twists have been added.

First, it begins to look as though a number of Labour politicians have decided that their career is now best enhanced by deserting the apparently foundering vessel: whether this applies to just a few disenchanted time-servers, or is spread more widely across the cabinet, will determine how tightly Gordon Brown’s hands are tied.

Second is the question of whether Gordon Brown himself can survive the next week – and if he doesn’t, whether the government is capable of steering on without him.

Cabinet reshuffles are usually about point-scoring and authority-stamping. In this case, the second of these purposes is already looking seriously damaged by Ministers leaping before they are pushed. Hazel Blears has gone - Jacqui Smith is going. So, too, are Beverley Hughes – allegedly for family reasons – and Shahid Malik, an early casualty of the expenses scandal. Alastair Darling, unless Gordon Brown experiences an incredible last-minute conversion, is on his way to the back benches.

That’s a lot of heavy hitters to lose – and if Brown factors in the recent furore over expenses, there are a few more whose position is no longer tenable. A whiter than white Cabinet would be hard to find: according to the BBC’s analysis of Labour MPs who have questions to answer over their expenses, some 16 of the Cabinet’s core 23 members fall into this category.

Most at risk must be Geoff Hoon: his claim record has many similarities to that of Hazel Blears’, whose conduct the Prime Minister deemed to be "unacceptable". What, though, of Jack Straw’s double claiming of council tax? Or Culture Minister Andy Burnham’s persistence in claiming £16,000 for home improvements, despite repeated rejections from the fees office?

Despite this, Gordon Brown still has around him individuals who could prove a formidable government team. Peter Mandelson, Alan Johnson, Ed Balls, Jack Straw and David Milliband could easily fill the top posts in government: current speculation puts Balls at the Treasury, Milliband or Johnson at the Home Office, and Mandelson at the Foreign Office.

Also in play is former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who increased speculation about a possible return to government by going on record today as "not seeking" a senior role.

Expect those names to feature highly in the imminent reshuffle. If, on the other hand, they do not, assume that some very senior figures indeed are now turning their back on Gordon – and expect a leadership crisis to follow shortly.

The starting gun may be fired tonight when Hazel Blears goes public with her views on Gordon Brown after close of polls today.

One notable change this week has been the absence of all the past arguments about how technically difficult it is to unseat a leader: if Brown now goes, it is likely to have more to do with senior party members deserting him, and far less to do with some long-drawn out leadership process.

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