The September reshuffle will be key to determining whether Gordon Brown faces a leadership challenge this autumn. Here's today's column from the Newcastle Journal.
This time last year, as I prepared to go off on my summer holidays, I openly speculated on these pages as to whether I would come back in the middle of a general election campaign.
Gordo-mania was then at its height and all the gossip at Westminster was that the Prime Minister was planning to hold an early autumn election.
Well, what a difference a year makes. Twelve months on, I am wondering whether by the time this column resumes on 6 September, we might be in the midst of a Labour leadership battle.
The one thing all Labour MPs seem to agree on at the moment is that the first week of next month will be crucial in determining whether or not the Prime Minister will survive.
Why is this? Well, that’s the week MPs start returning to Westminster for the three-week “mopping up” session that takes place between the summer recess and the conference season.
They will have had a chance to go away and reflect on their party’s plight, and reach some kind of collective judgement about whether or not Mr Brown’s position is recoverable.
At the same time, the Prime Minister will have to use that week to try to regain the initiative and demonstrate that there is
He has two potential weapons in his armoury – the proposed launch of a “new economic plan” to alleviate the worst effects of the credit crunch, and that old staple, a Cabinet reshuffle.
Taking the “new economic plan” first, this could well be a last opportunity for Mr Brown to set out some kind of distinctive agenda for his administration, based around the idea of “fairness.”
A series of over by measures to help the worst-off, possibly paid for by a windfall tax on energy companies, may well help win over rebellious Labour MPs.
But it’s the reshuffle that holds the key to the whole crisis. Mr Brown has to have one – partly as a means of reasserting his authority, and partly because the government is badly in need of refreshing.
But there is a very considerable risk that the whole exercise will backfire, with ministers either refusing to be moved, or even in some cases refusing to continue to serve under him.
Any meaningful reshuffle would almost certainly have to involve changes in the major offices of state, in particular the Treasury where Alistair Darling has endured a torrid 14 months.
But the trouble with Mr Darling is that he knows where too many of the bodies are buried.
He knows, for instance, that the 10p tax debacle was entirely of Mr Brown’s own making, and that the Prime Minister had been warned shortly after taking took over that the policy would need to be changed.
If he went to the backbenches, or was given a job which disagreed with him, there is always the risk that he could go nuclear.
There are those who might argue that Alistair Darling is too obviously nice and mild-mannered a character to do such a thing to poor Mr Brown, whatever the degree of provocation.
But in response to that I would say just three words: Sir Geoffrey Howe.
In 1979, Denis Healey said that being savaged by Sir Geoffrey was “like being savaged by a dead sheep.” Years later, Margaret Thatcher was to discover the inner wolf that lurked beneath.
It follows that Mr Darling is probably unsackable, although he might just decide go of his own volition following what has been a rather unhappy spell at the Treasury.
The biggest danger for Mr Brown, though, is not so much Mr Darling refusing to move as other people simply refusing to continue to serve under him.
One national newspaper reported last month, in the immediate aftermath of the Glasgow East by-election, that up to 15 ministers were prepared to do this.
If that is true, then I am very much afraid that Mr Brown is toast. No Prime Minister, not least one already as weakened as this one, could survive such a rebuff to his authority.
In these circumstances, the wisest option might seem to be not to have a reshuffle at all – except that this too would only serve to highlight his weakness.
But even if he manages to walk this difficult tightrope, Mr Brown faces another excruciating dilemma over when to hold the Glenrothes by-election following Labour MP John MacDougall’s death this week.
The obvious option seems to be to delay it at least until after the conferences, by which time Mr Brown may have had a chance to stabilise his leadership.
But that runs the risk that the by-election will reverse any gains made as a result of the “September relaunch” and deliver a final knockout blow to the Prime Minister.
If he makes the speech of his life at the party conference, carries out the reshuffle to end all reshuffles, unveils a new economic plan, and Labour still can’t win a by-election, then what on earth is there left to do except change the leader?
So, cards on the table time. Will Mr Brown face a leadership challenge this autumn? Probably. Should he face one? Regretfully, I have to say yes.
The past year has been, I don’t mind admitting, a depressing one for those of us who invested such hopes in the Brown premiership.
I had argued for years that his more understated style would put an end to the spin that marred his predecessor’s reign, and that his commitment to social justice would restore Labour’s lost moral compass.
The fact that Mr Brown has done neither of these things is the biggest single reason why he has forfeited the support of so many of those who once championed him.
Historians will argue for years about what went wrong, and why this considerable political figure managed to make such a hash of the premiership he coveted for so long.
The best answer I can give is that, like Anthony Eden, it was his misfortune to come to the top job when his best years were behind him.
The long years of waiting for Number 10 appear to have made Mr Brown old before his time, and worn-out his once legendary political stamina.
I think it will probably take more than a two-week summer break in Suffolk to revive him.