It would appear to be the case that just when you think you have exhausted the possibilities provided by Gordon Brown's error prone administration along comes some new blunder. A case in point being the resignation of Ruth Kelly.
On the 23rd September 2008 Gordon Brown delivered his key note speech to the Labour Party Conference at Manchester, and whilst the Daily Mail pronounced it "a brilliant speech" in its leader, elsewhere it was damned by faint praise. One Labour MP was quoted as saying that it was "as good as it could have been", another described it as "string of clichés to please the party and will fall apart in two days", before adding "And I'm a loyalist", whilst a "senior ministerial figure" was prepared to offer the opinion that "the speech was boring" and that Brown would be "toast by Christmas".
Nevertheless it was sufficiently well received by the faithful to at least dampen the flames of the 'Brown must go' squad for a week or two, and one might have imagined that the Labour Party PR machine would have at least managed to have squeezed twenty-fours worth of decent headlines out of the story. Sadly this was not to be, as on the following day the leading story on most news sites soon became that of the resignation of Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Transport. Of course the unexpected resignation of any member of the government let alone a cabinet minister, is generally speaking a source of embarrassment, but what made the resignation of Ruth Kelly potentially more damaging was the rather chaotic sequence of events that surrounded the whole affair.
It was on the evening on the 23rd September that BBC's Newsnight ran a story regarding an "imminent" government reshuffle which claimed that a number of Cabinet ministers were about to be dumped including Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne, and the Chief Whip Geoff Hoon. Indeed Newsnight conducted a live interview with Geoff Hoon, who was said to be "visibly shaken" at the news of his demise, although whether this was because he had no inkling that he might be sacked, or simply shocked that the secret was out was unclear. Various rumours were soon swirling around the assembled press corps in Manchester, including the story that a Conservative researcher named Alex Dawson, who was attending the conference as an observer, had allegedly overheard Kelly describing Brown's speech as "terrible".
It was in this heightened atmosphere that Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, approached the Prime Minister's aides during the early hours of the 24th September to inform them that he intended running a report in the morning to the effect that Ms Kelly would be resigning shortly and that she had at least been contemplating using her resignation as an opportunity to criticise the Prime Minister. Shortly afterwards at about 3.00 am in the morning Damian McBride, the Downing Street Press chief together with David Learn, a special adviser to the Department of Transport, confronted a journalist from BBC Newsnight at the bar of the Midland Hotel to impress upon them the information that neither of them had been responsible for leaking the story of Kelly's departure from office.
The upshot was that they all sat down at a table "surrounded by about a dozen journalists and broadcasters", and the assembled government aides explained that Kelly had told the Prime Minister months ago that she intended stepping down for "family reasons" and duly confirmed that Kelly had indeed resigned. The Press Association duly put out the story at 3.48 a.m. Thus Ms Kelly's resignation was established as one of the most bizarre resignations in recent political history, as generally speaking the British government does not normally announce the resignation of Cabinet ministers during impromptu gatherings held in hotel bars in the early hours of the morning.
Later that same day Ruth Kelly made an appearance at the Labour conference in which she dutifully pronounced that it had been a "tremendous privilege to have worked with both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown" whom she described as being "two towering figures in the Labour Party, Government and on the world stage", but confirmed that regretfully she had decided to put her "children and family" first and leave the government.
Ostensibly the reason for Kelly's resignation was the time honoured excuse of 'spending more time with her family', although of course, whether this was the whole story was something else altogether. As a devout Roman Catholic Ms Kelly was known to be an opponent of the government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and had been tactfully allowed to miss a key vote on the bill in the last session of Parliament, whilst her "friends" were on hand to confirm that she had been "unhappy for some time with Mr Brown's leadership". Indeed although the official line from Gordon Brown was that "There are no political issues between Ruth and me", Kelly had long been identified as a supporter of the rival Blair camp. It was also noted that her majority in Bolton West was only 2,064 last time round, and that her decision may well have been motivated more by her desire to put some effort into either retaining her seat, or indeed to lining up some alternative employment.
Many newspapers also claimed that although Ruth Kelly had told Brown of her intention to step down from government in May 2008, there had since been various "discussions" with sundry other discontented ministers, in which it had been suggested that in the circumstances that the announcement of her resignation should be timed to maximise the potential embarrassment to Brown. What truth there was behind such tales wasn't clear, but nevertheless according to The Times the "news leaked out at late night parties in Manchester", although it must also have been the case that the BBC had confirmation of the story from an unimpeachable source, and so the question remained regarding the identity of this source and their motivation for placing the story in the public domain. The message from Team Brown was that it was the rebels who had deliberately leaked the news in order to undermine the impact of Brown's successful conference speech, whilst the rebels alleged that it was Downing Street who had deliberately leaked the news in order to undermine the impact of Ruth Kelly's resignation. The one person who seemed nonplussed at this turn of events was Ruth Kelly herself who appeared on BBC Radio 4's The World At One on the 24th September to say that she had "absolutely no idea" that her resignation was going to be announced and that she "as shocked as anyone else when I heard the news".
To many the whole thing appeared to be more of a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, and the product of excess alcohol rather than deliberate planning. It nevertheless reflected badly on Gordon Brown's government, as even the Daily Mirror admitted that it was a "major blow" to the Prime Minister and that her decision to leave would "encourage Labour rebels", whilst the whole affair appeared to underline the sense of chaos that was beginning to surround the administration.
As it was Ruth Kelly didn't help matters when, in her first interview after her resignation, she referred to David Miliband as "a star of the future", and then responded to the question of whether there would be a challenge to Brown's position as leader by saying "It's impossible to say what is going to happen", when of course the expected answer from a true hearted loyalist would have been a simple "No". Presumably she was not that concerned one way or another, as on the 3rd October she announced her intention to stand down from Parliament at the next General Election. In the circumstances it wasn't that surprising, when details of Gordon Brown's government reshuffle emerged in the following week, to hear that Damian McBride had been pushed aside within the Downing Street hierarchy.
- Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Transport, spoke to Labour Party Conference on Wednesday 24 September
- Nicholas Watt and Patrick Wintour, Kelly's exit reignites Labour's civil war, The Guardian, September 25 2008
- Shambolic Ruth Kelly exit rattles both Gordon Brown and the plotters, The Times, September 25, 2008
- Andrew Grice, Kelly's shock resignation stalls Brown's revival, The Independent, 25 September 2008
- Robert Winnett , Ruth Kelly's chaotic resignation highlights a Government in crisis, Daily Telegraph, 24 Sep 2008
- Kevin Maguire: Reports of Gordon Brown's political death prove premature, Daily Mirror, 24/09/2008