Nigel Morris: How an effortless rise to top became a fast ride to bottom

Share
Related Topics

James Purnell was the quintessential Blairite long before the term was even coined.

As a teenage Oxford undergraduate, he did not spend his summer travelling the globe or serving in a bar. Instead the ambitious Surrey public school product headed to Westminster to work for Labour's fast-rising but little-known employment spokesman, Tony Blair.

When Mr Blair swept into Downing Street in the 1997 New Labour landslide, Purnell was one of the trusted young advisers he took with him. His loyalty was repaid; Mr Blair appointed him to the government just three years after Mr Purnell won his Commons seat.

His upward trajectory could have been halted by the resignation of his political mentor in 2007, but instead Gordon Brown made Mr Purnell culture secretary – and the youngest member of the Cabinet.

His appointment was widely believed at the time to have been a departing demand by Mr Blair to his successor. But Mr Brown's allies insisted he was given the job on his merits and that his appointment was proof of the new Prime Minister's willingness to reach out to all sections of the party.

Their trust in him was underlined by his promotion last year to the politically sensitive post of Work and Pensions Secretary, where he demonstrated his Blairite zeal and political self-confidence by setting about contentious reforms to the benefits system.

When Mr Brown's leadership faced a cabinet whispering campaign 10 months ago, Mr Purnell was touted as a likely person to lead the charge over the top. The move never came although he made clear to friends he would enthusiastically support any attempt by his ally David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, to seize the crown.

Mr Purnell's rise up the political ladder until last night had been so effortless that he made enemies with his self-assured – some said smug – manner.

His Home Counties background and continuing contact with Mr Blair, to whom he speaks regularly, also provoked hostility.

Some detractors took malicious pleasure from a bizarre episode nearly two years ago when he was "photoshopped" into a picture of Greater Manchester MPs outside a local hospital. It turned out he had been late for the photocall and his image was superimposed on a gap left for him by the Labour colleagues who had been there on time.

To his embarrassment, the controversy erupted just after he had urged the television industry to "get their house in order" after a series of "fake" scandals.

Mr Purnell, 39, also found himself embroiled in the furore over MPs' expenses when the Daily Telegraph claimed he had avoided paying capital gains tax on the sale of his London home. He denied the allegation, maintaining that he was not liable for tax on the property.

Downing Street declared its full confidence in him as the claims broke. Last night it was issuing a very different kind of statement, expressing Mr Brown's "disappointment" in a move that could trigger his downfall.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week