Say you were Prime Minister of Britain, waking every day to your national media proclaiming your political death, fending off challenges to your authority from a fractured and fractious Labour Party and bracing against disastrous results in municipal and European elections. You might think a government reshuffle would be the best way to reassert your authority. You might even dare to dream that a high-profile celebrity appointment to government could, in the parlance of your press advisers, “change the narrative.” So you pick up the phone to the country’s best-known businessman, star of the U.K. version of The Apprentice.
Thus it is that Alan Sugar who, like his U.S. counterpart, Donald Trump, uses the catchphrase “You’re fired!” has become an unlikely recruit to the band of Downing Street desperadoes trying to stop Gordon Brown from being fired. Sugar, already a business adviser to the government, will trade in his existing honorific of Sir for the loftier title of Lord and become the government’s enterprise czar.
“Having had the pleasure of meeting past Prime Ministers, I can tell you, for what it’s worth, that this fellow should stay in place,” Sugar told the BBC. His new colleagues dutifully trotted out that message to anyone who would listen. Alan Johnson, who moved from Health Secretary to Home Office Minister in today’s reshuffle , said Brown was “the best man” to run the country.
Their tributes came after another Cabinet member, James Purnell, broke ranks to express exactly the opposite view. Purnell’s resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary, in a surprise move just after European Parliament and English local council polling stations closed Thursday night, pushed Downing Street into advancing the reshuffle, which was originally planned to take place on Monday. Purnell, a rising Labour star, released his resignation letter, which called on Brown to resign for the good of the Labour Party. “I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely. I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning,” wrote Purnell.
“One person writing a letter doesn’t mean that everyone is collapsing like a pack of cards,” said Sugar. “You will always have some people who will jump ship.” The businessman hasn’t been aboard the Good Ship Gordon for long, but even he must recognize it’s listing dangerously. Purnell’s resignation followed the departure of his Cabinet colleagues Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, members of a close-knit group of senior women in the Labour Party dubbed the Wags by mischievous Westminster correspondents. The word originally stood for “Wives and Girlfriends,” the collective name for the glamorous female camp followers of the England football team, but has now been recast as “Women against Gordon.” Caroline Flint, another Wag, stood down during the reshuffle, accusing Brown of treating women in his government “like female window dressing.”
Like Purnell, Smith, Blears and Flint had worked closely with former Prime Minister Tony Blair and were never fully trusted by the faction around his successor. After the resignations today of two more Ministers from the Blair era, the new Cabinet is stacked with Brown loyalists. But they’ll have their work cut out shoring up their master. Backbenchers have been collecting names on a petition calling for him to go. They are holding their fire as results come in today from the local elections and until the European election outcome is announced on Sunday evening. A meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday evening promises to be stormy. Nobody knows how much more turbulence the Good Ship Gordon can take.
Read “David Cameron: U.K.’s Next Leader”
Watch an interview with Gordon Brown.