Blairite star Purnell quits as MP

As Labour unveils ‘A future fair for all’ campaign slogan, former minister tipped as future leader shocks party
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Indy Politics

The former cabinet minister James Purnell, who was tipped as a future Labour leader, shocked colleagues yesterday by revealing that he would be leaving Parliament at the next election.

Mr Purnell, a leading figure on the Blairite wing of the party, said he had decided to leave frontline politics after just nine years in the Commons because he was keen to pursue interests outside Westminster.

Despite his close association with Tony Blair, Mr Purnell had been offered an olive branch by Gordon Brown, who brought him into the Cabinet in June 2007 and promoted him to Work and Pensions Secretary in January 2008. However, Mr Purnell almost precipitated Mr Brown's departure with his resignation from the Cabinet last June after disastrous local election results.

His stinging resignation letter, published in full on the front page of a national newspaper, included fierce criticism of Mr Brown, warning that his leadership made "a Conservative victory more, not less likely". The Stalybridge and Hyde MP is just one of several high-profile former ministers associated with Mr Blair to step down. Alan Milburn, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt have already announced that they will not be staying on in the Commons after the next election.

The announcement of his imminent departure also comes at a terrible time for Labour's leadership, as Mr Brown prepares to launch the themes for the party's election campaign at a speech in Coventry today. The Prime Minister is also expected to reveal the slogans that will be deployed during the campaign. Since his cabinet resignation, Mr Purnell has been reluctant to discuss his concerns about Mr Brown's leadership and instead concentrated on his work with the think-tank, Demos.

"This has been an extremely difficult decision to make. But I have decided that I no longer wish to be an MP," Mr Purnell said in a statement yesterday. "I have spent all my working life in or about Westminster. And while this has been a huge privilege, I've realised I don't want to have spent all my life in frontline politics." He added: "I'm looking forward to completing my project at Demos. After that my hope is to continue to contribute ideas to public service and to the Labour Party."

Mr Purnell's resignation last June is now seen as the high water mark of attempts to remove Mr Brown from the leadership. Cabinet sources told The Independent that it was only the persuasiveness of Lord Mandelson, who quickly moved to speak to Mr Purnell's cabinet allies when he learned of the Pensions Secretary's resignation on the 10 o'clock news, that stopped Mr Brown from being toppled. "It would have been a different story without Peter's intervention," the source said. "It really was very serious." Another cabinet resignation may well have spelled the end for the Prime Minister.

Mr Purnell's departure from Westminster a month before his 40th birthday will also be perceived as a blow for the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, as it had been widely assumed that Mr Purnell would play a key role in his friend's campaign in any future leadership contest. Mr Purnell had also been tipped himself for the leadership by The Spectator.

Throughout his 20-year political career, Mr Purnell had been closely associated with the Blairite wing of the party, having worked for Mr Blair since acting as a researcher for the former Prime Minister during his time as a student. Friends in the party said he had never been comfortable with the "rough and tumble" of party politics and was more at home working on strategy for the Labour Party. Recent events, including the expenses scandal in which he was caught up, added to his disenchantment. His immediate future will be spent retraining as a community organiser with the grass roots group, London Citizens. Mr Purnell has already backed its main demand of a "living wage" of £7.60 an hour.

Lord Mandelson said yesterday that he was "very sad" to see Mr Purnell leave. "He has been a very good member of our party and an excellent minister," he told the BBC. "But I realise that he is looking to his future and wondering what he wants to spend the rest of life doing, and has opted for a different life. Politics and Parliament will be poorer for that and I regret his decision very much."