Purnell to quit as MP – what does he mean by that?

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2010

Well, there’s a turn-up: James Purnell – former secretary of state for work and pensions, the man who almost brought down Gordon Brown, and seemingly a strong contender for the Labour leadership after the next election – has announced he will be quitting Parliament at the general election. Here’s how The Times reports it:

Labour insiders said that he was telling his Stalybridge and Hyde local party that with regret he was standing down to seek new challenges. …

After his resignation Mr Purnell returned to the back benches and has played a big part in running the Demos centre-left think-tank. But friends say that he has become increasingly disenchanted with Parliament and life as an MP. Insiders said that Mr Purnell had nothing lined up for his life after Parliament but there will be no shortage of offers.

He was one of the MPs most associated with the Blair project. He was Mr Blair’s main speechwriter when he was Shadow Home Secretary — the post where his strong performance made him a racing certainty to become leader after John Smith died.

The paper reports it as a blow for David Miliband (it’s pretty much compulsory for everything involving Labour now to be reported as a blow to Mr Miliband Snr). I’m not sure I follow their reasoning; from a purely practical point of view, one of his most likely rivals from the Blairite wing of the party – and a man who was actually prepared to put his head above the parapet – is now out of the way.

It will be a blow, though, for those Labour members who were hoping a ‘dream ticket’ of Mr Purnell and Jon Cruddas might ape the success the Blair/Prescott duumvirate achieved for the party in the 1990s.

Perhaps the bigger blow, though, is to the role of the professional politician. Whether you agree with Mr Purnell or not, like him or not, he is intelligent, articulate, youthful: he adds to public life, and will presumably wish to contribute to it still. What does it say about Parliament, or about the life of an MP, that he would much rather operate from beyond Westminster?