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Inside the bunker - 24 hours that may have finished Gordon Brown

THE DOWNING Street make-up artist applied an extra thick layer of “pancake” on Gordon Brown’s face as he waited to face the world at the end of the toughest 24 hours of his political career.

Clutched in his hand, scrawled with thick black marker pen, was the list of names he hoped would ensure his political survival.

It was the final act on a day when two of his top ministers resigned; he was stabbed in the back by his stiletto-clad Europe minister; he resurrected Labour stalwart Glenys Kinnock and hired a reality TV star.

The real trouble started on Wednesday afternoon, when Gordon Brown’s closest aide, Sue Nye, called a friend of Pensions Secretary James Purnell. “Would James like to go to Education?”

Fiercely ambitious, Purnell was a rising star, an arch Blairite promoted to Pensions Secretary by Gordon Brown.

This phone call signalled one significant fact. Schools Secretary Ed Balls - Gordon's right hand man and the man Blairites fear will wreck the government - was going to be the next Chancellor. Alistair Darling would be out on his ear and the Labour Party would implode in civil war.

On Thursday Purnell kept a mask on his emotions, even his friends had no idea he was now plotting a resignation he hoped would spark a revolution.

His own spin doctor was kept in the dark - with a former aide quietly helping while on maternity leave.

But one of the first people he called was Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who malso feared a move.

The week before, Gordon Brown had tried to stop him writing about the local elections in the News of the World and he was sick of the bullying, control freak machine at the heart of government.

Purnell waited for another three hours before calling Downing Street.

Miliband had already called in the big guns, persuading American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call the Prime Minister and plead for Miliband to stay on.

At 9.30pm, when Purnell finally called the Prime Minister, all hell broke lose.

Gordon Brown was already in his study with wife Sarah, Ed Balls, Peter Mandelson and officials.
Purnell’s letter said he owed it to the Labour Party to "say what I believe no matter how hard that may be".

“I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely. That would be disastrous for our country."

Total panic erupted - and fury.

They leaped for the phones but David Miliband’s was engaged. Health Secretary Alan Johnson’s was switched off.

In a fit of rage aides say the PM ripped up the sheets of paper he had been scrawling out details of the reshuffle and hurled them across the room.

It was Mandelson who steadied the ship.

On reaching David Miliband, he did a deal straight away: “You’ll stay on as Foreign Secretary.”

An eye witness says he added: “I know Brown has behaved like a b****** and has got to change.

“But we’re the only people who can keep Tony Blair’s flame alive and keep his mission going from the inside.

“If you stand down there will be a civil war in the Labour Party and we’ll lose a General Election.”

Miliband blinked first and issued a statement pledging his support.

But Mandelson’s deal had smashed Gordon Brown’s plans for a wide-ranging reshuffle.
Alistair Darling would quit if moved from the Treasury.

The Browns, plus their children, had been for Sunday lunch at the Darlings’ Edinburgh home the weekend before. Maggie Darling was upstairs baby-sitting their children.

Ed Balls leaned forward and pitched in: “Whatever you do is alright for me. If the Treasury move doesn’t happen the only think I want to do is stay on as Schools Secretary.”

By 1am a rescue plan had been hatched - keep the “Big Beasts” in place and try to hold on to the rest.
By 6.30am, Brown was sitting in the Cabinet Room and the calls started going in.

In a side room which had been closed with a “no entry” sign since Thursday morning, a white board was propped against the wall with everyone’s name on it.

Sat alongside Brown was Peter Mandelson. The calls started.

Alistair Darling and Jack Straw were told they were staying.

Alan Johnson, who had switched his phone back on, was told he was going to be Home Secretary.

The man who was once a postman and now Brown’s likely successor had won the plum prize for his loyalty.

He headed straight for London on the train, to be greeted by Special Branch and a police close protection team.

Then came the news that John Hutton was standing down.

When the news channels started to speculate that the coup was back on crews were rushed to the Ministry of Defence, where an emotional Hutton pledged his loyalty.

A friend said last night: “He announced he was going for personal issues. He knows he will take a caning for quitting while troops are in Afghanistan but he has had enough.

“But it’s not his style to say it’s Gordon’s fault. He believes in loyalty.”

The next hurdle was Geoff Hoon. The Transport Secretary had told the PM a year ago he wanted an “international role” but there were no vacancies.

Hoon agreed not to rock the boat - his closest friend Alistair Darling was safe and Brown dangled a big carrot - you might be the next European Commissioner.

As lunchtime came and went the back of the reshuffle was broken. Scouser Andy Burnham was delighted with a move from Culture to Health.

But as Brown dealt with the “stragglers” one dilemma remained - the black haired temptress Caroline Flint.

For days, Downing Street believed she was about to quit - following her close friends Jacqui Smith and Hazel Blears.

On Thursday night Flint had rushed out a statement of support.

But as the press gathered in the street outside Downing Street she exploded with rage.

Brown told her he wanted her to stay on as Europe Minister, but was offering her a full seat in cabinet.
Flint “declined”, as Brown later put it in his press conference.

As the press waited, she screamed at aides.Before a letter to the PM was sent, words like “devious”, “bully” and “sexist pig” were floated.

The final text was only sent out after Smith and Blears pleaded with her to tone it down. But the effect was electric.

She raged: “"You have a two-tier government. Several of the women attending cabinet - myself included - have been treated by you as little more than female window dressing.”

Inside Downing Street, aides had given reporters copies of the new Cabinet list.

“Where’s Flint?”, we muttered, unaware the television networks were already screaming “Flint Quits” while Brown tried to start his fightback.

Downing Street had deliberately kept the development quiet.

But, seconds later, Blackberries buzzed.

“Why has Caroline Flint resigned and said you think women are window dressing?” demanded a reporter.

Brown staggered back a step and muttered that there were plenty of women in Cabinet. But he saved his trump card for last.

“Besides, I am delighted to announce we have a very strong candidate for Europe Minister, Glenys Kinnock.” he beamed.

News that the ex-MEP, wife of Labour’s disastrous leader Neil, was back suddenly showed Brown had run out friends.

“Are you telling us, you cannot find a single candidate to be Minister for Europe out of 350 MPs?” said one hack.

“Erm, yes” seemed to be the only answer from Downing Street.

But he had survived the day, which was the best Downing Street could have hoped for.

 

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