MONDAY INTERVIEW: Alan Milburn: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: `Tony Can Join Attlee and Thatcher as the Next PM Who Has Embedded Change in Britain'
Grice, Andrew, The Independent (London, England)
ALL EYES are on Alan Milburn at this week's Labour Party conference in Brighton and he knows it. In the three weeks since Tony Blair appointed him the Government's policy chief and Labour's general election co-ordinator, the arch-Blairite former health secretary has kept an uncharacteristically low profile. That is no longer an option.
The Government's tectonic plates moved in the reshuffle, but not in the way Gordon Brown was expecting: instead of taking over as Prime Minister, he found that a rejuvenated Mr Blair had not only decided to carry on but had apparently handed the Chancellor's pivotal election role to Mr Milburn. Although the Blairites deny it, the Brownites saw the move as the Prime Minister anointing Mr Milburn his chosen successor.
Mr Milburn, in his first newspaper interview since his surprise recall to the Cabinet, goes out of his way to praise Mr Brown's record as Chancellor and insists he will still play a key role in the election. But, given past tensions with Mr Brown, he is walking on eggshells. Diplomatically, Mr Milburn has scrapped plans to address the Brighton conference, anxious not to tread on the toes of cabinet colleagues and give the media the opportunity to rerun the reshuffle story. He does not want to be seen as a splitter.
Cabinet colleagues view him as the new power in the land. He is based in the Cabinet Office but has an office round the corner and up four steps from Mr Blair's Downing Street "den", and another perch at Labour Party headquarters. There is no doubt he carries the Prime Minister's authority. Ministers see him as replacing the departed advisers Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. "Instead of telling people to `Ask Alastair', Tony now says `Ask Alan'," one cabinet member has said.
Mr Milburn insists his fellow ministers have been "brilliant" and "incredibly co-operative" about his new role; he held "positive meetings" with most of them last week to discuss their policy agenda and their party conference speeches. He also had several telephone calls with Mr Brown, who was in Scotland with his dying mother.
The Chancellor, rather scathingly, refers to his rival as plain "Milburn", but the man himself is anxious to rebuild bridges with "Gordon". "We have got a very cordial relationship," Mr Milburn says. "We are both determined that we are doing to work together."
Did he sense that Mr Brown resented his appointment? "No, certainly not in the discussions we have had." He dismisses as "balderdash" reports that Brown allies have been excluded from daily Downing Street meetings, insisting that the most important body is Labour's election strategy group, chaired by Mr Blair and including the Chancellor.
"Gordon is a huge figure in the party, the movement, the country. He has a huge contribution to make. I want to work closely with him, John Prescott and all the others in the Cabinet."
Would he support Mr Brown as Mr Blair's successor then? Mr Milburn laughs off the question without answering it.
He says: " It is not about me, Gordon, Tony or John Prescott. It's about all of us. It genuinely is a team game. It works only if you have one team. That is what I am determined to achieve. There is a shared determination to deliver the third term Labour has never had."
Why did Mr Milburn abandon his much-publicised decision to spend more time with his family after less than 15 months? "It wasn't what I intended. It was not part of any game plan. In some ways, it went against my better judgement to come back. Tony was pretty persuasive.
"If I had been offered a mainstream departmental job, I would have been clear that was not what I wanted. But the job of co- ordinating policy across government desperately needs doing, and we have to get into the right shape for the election. So it was difficult to say no."
His "quality of life" …
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Publication information: Article title: MONDAY INTERVIEW: Alan Milburn: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: `Tony Can Join Attlee and Thatcher as the Next PM Who Has Embedded Change in Britain'. Contributors: Grice, Andrew - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 27, 2004. Page number: 29. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.