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Johnson handed Home Office brief

Poisoned chalice for alleged leadership contender

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Alan Johnson, the man tipped to take over if Gordon Brown is forced to quit, has today been handed the famously troublesome Home Office brief.

Following the resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell last night, the Prime Minister brought his Cabinet reshuffle forward from Monday in a bid to regain control of his government.

Johnson has pledged allegiance to Gordon Brown, but it's reported he has let it be known he would be interested in the leader's job if it came up.

As Home Secretary he'll take responsibility for arguably the most disliked and gaffe-prone Whitehall department, which is currently pushing through the ID card project and plans for a massive increase in monitoring of the internet.

A former postal union chief, Johnson was most recently Health Secretary. He takes over at the Home Office from Jacqui Smith, whose resignation was leaked earlier this week.

The job of Home Secretary has proven a poisoned chalice for senior Labour figures. David Blunkett, John Reid, Charles Clarke - and now Smith - all headed for the back benches after controversies. Only Jack Straw remains in frontline politics.

According to the BBC, the Chancellor Alistair Darling turned down a move to the Home Office and will stay at the Treasury.

Also part of today's reshuffle, Defence Secretary and prominent Blairite John Hutton became the fourth Cabinet minister to leave government this week. He cited family reasons. A successor hasn't been named yet.

In a forthright blog posting today, John Prescott strongly criticised Purnell and other senior Labour figures for distracting the party from the European and local election campaign. ®

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