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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 09:29 GMT 10:29 UK
Can Browne survive in long term?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Defence Secretary Des Browne has some straightforward questions to answer when he fights to save his career in the Commons.

Des Browne with troops in Afghanistan
Mr Browne is said to have the support of service chiefs
MPs want to know who gave the green light to the navy personnel to sell their stories - itself a highly unusual move - and why that permission was given.

They expect to hear an explanation of why the defence secretary overturned the decision three days later and why he was allegedly away from his desk as the affair erupted.

And, most importantly, they want to know how the personnel were captured in the first place and what is being done to ensure it does not happen again.

Mr Browne's supporters believe he has good answers to all those questions which should reassure MPs and head off any opposition demands for his head.

Safe hands

He has already suggested it was navy chiefs who made the original decision to allow the sale of the stories, that he merely "noted it" and that he later realised this was a mistake and reversed the decision.

That has seen cabinet colleague John Reid describing him as "courageous" for taking personal responsibility.

Gordon Brown
Mr Browne's future may lie in Chancellor Gordon Brown's hands
And the fact that service chiefs - who gave the original go-ahead for the sale of the stories - are now backing him will help, up to a point. Former Tory defence secretary Michael Portillo has, for example, claimed their support is "tainted" by their own involvement in the affair.

All of this may be deeply embarrassing for Mr Browne and may well undermine his reputation as a safe pair of hands, but most seem to believe it is unlikely to prove fatal - at the moment.

It is the other, less straightforward questions that may prove the most damaging in the longer term, however.

Mishandled spin

There are suspicions that Mr Browne and Downing Street were far more involved in the original decision than admitted, that ministers - and even the prime minister - were so dismayed by the propaganda coup pulled off by Iran over the affair that they were desperate to hit back.

In other words, it was another example of mishandled spin. If that is ever confirmed it would prove hugely damaging to both Mr Browne and the prime minister.

And, of course, Mr Browne is a close ally of Chancellor Gordon Brown so the continued wrangling over the Labour leadership is providing another undercurrent.

Does the prime minister still have the power or will to sack a Brown ally, or would he rather leave that painful decision to the Chancellor himself when he takes over as prime minister in a few weeks' time, as expected?

And how will prime minister Brown react to this affair and the way his friend has managed it. Will the defence secretary be a casualty in Mr Brown's cabinet re-shuffle?

It seems likely, therefore, that Mr Browne will still be in his job this time next week - but that is only the first hurdle.




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