"It taught me that life's a bitch." Even though that remains the only memorable thing that the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, has uttered, as a political testament it takes some beating. He was describing the defining moment of his political thinking, when, as a young trade unionist aged 28, he had led and lost the battle to save the Sunderland shipyard after its closure was announced in 1986.
Milburn says: "At the end of the day the yards closed and 2,500 jobs were lost; it is a decision that still angers me because it was such a wanton act of industrial vandalism. But it became increasingly clear to me that if I was going to do anything about stemming the flow of decline then I had to do it from inside Parliament rather than outside."
It marked the defining moment in a political odyssey that began in a hippie bookshop and could yet end on the steps of 10 Downing Street. After only eight years in Parliament and two in the Cabinet, Milburn is routinely talked about as a future leader of his party. True, that can be a curse. The road to No 10 is strewn with the corpses of best-prime-ministers-we- never-had. As Health Secretary, Milburn is well aware of his mortality, faced with living up to the hype of his "radical" National Plan for the NHS in July and another winter in which the Government cannot afford to allow the word "crisis" to become linked again with the health service.
The period between now and the next election will certainly be a bit of a bitch, as Blair and Milburn both try to make the NHS work. If Milburn does overcome the difficulties, then Blair will be deeply in his debt, and a "big job" will be Milburn's reward. At the age of 42, and with age and telegenic ability on his side, there will be no reason to doubt that Milburn is already papabile, a view that is shared at the highest levels of New Labour.
He is assuredly able and assiduous. Even his Tory opponents agree that he has a "commanding presence" at the dispatch box. In that more important forum, This Morning with Richard and Judy, Milburn acquitted himself well in last week's "NHS Moan-in", empathising with the viewers' phoned-in complaints, calling in his aid his own experience with his "kids". His physical mannerisms, such as the semi-fist hand gesture, are Blairesque, but with his softish, poshish Geordie accent he comes across as more of a bloke, with more street cred, more human. He is one of the few cabinet ministers to have been observed pushing a baby buggy around the Labour conference and he is as much a family man as any: "Any spare time I have is devoted to my family to make up for all the time that I am away in London." He even knows when to say sorry, as he did over the farce of his NHS consultation questionnaires.
If a leadership vacancy did ever arise, Milburn could certainly boast some impressive working-class credentials. He was raised by his mother, Evelyn, a secretary in the NHS, on her own. Milburn never knew his father. He was born in Birmingham, but the family moved to Co Durham, to the pit village of Tow Law, not long after he was born. Life was "tough", as it must have been when the stigma of illegitimacy was much harsher than it is today, although Milburn says that he did not feel it. Milburn went to the local comprehensive and emerged with six O levels and three A levels - all A grades. There is some confusion as to whether that tally includes a maths O level, but there is no doubting Mr Milburn's acute intelligence.
He went on to Lancaster University to study history and then to Newcastle to pursue a postgraduate doctorate in late-18th-century radical ideas. At university, he, like Tony Blair, was not into politics: "I was vaguely interested in politics as a teenager at secondary school, although it probably wasn't until I went to Lancaster University to study history that I became really motivated; I don't find student politics much of a turn-on, so my political involvement didn't really begin until I returned to the North-east to start a PhD into the origins of the Labour movement in the region. …