Magazine article The Spectator

Milburn Is Mad to Think of Challenging Brown: But There Is Method in His Madness

Magazine article The Spectator

Milburn Is Mad to Think of Challenging Brown: But There Is Method in His Madness

Article excerpt

When Alan Milburn returned to the Cabinet in September 2004, explicitly tasked to run Labour's general election campaign, Gordon Brown's advisers were amazed by the Chancellor's composed response to such a bloody-minded act of provocation by the Prime Minister. 'Gordon was very strategic about it, ' one aide recalls. 'He said Milburn would fall out of favour with the parliamentary party and the activists, and that it would be a shambles.' The Brownites are nothing if not thorough, however. So a superbly orchestrated campaign of assassination was mounted just to make sure that Mr Brown's prophecy came true: a campaign that became known around Westminster as 'Kill Mil'. Barely a day seemed to go by without another allegation about Mr Milburn's supposed incompetence, sexism or arrogance appearing in the press. By the time Mr Brown had been recalled, and the election won with his help, Mr Milburn had had enough, and resigned from the Cabinet a second time. The welltempered samurai steel of 'Kill Mil' had well and truly done its work.

So it was quite something to see Mr Milburn on Sunday AM brooding over his prospects as a challenger for the Labour leadership. As David Blunkett once put it, he who crosses Gordon is asking for 'glass in his porridge'. And yet there was Mr Milburn talking like a southern governor who has already decided to run for the presidency, has $100 million in campaign pledges, but is not yet ready formally to announce his candidacy. 'That is a really good question, ' he replied, when asked by Andrew Marr if he would challenge Mr Brown, 'and it deserves a really, really good answer. The answer is when we have a vacancy. At the moment there isn't a vacancy. I think personally it is highly unlikely, but that is a bridge that I think we all need to cross.' The only bridge Mr Brown has in mind for Mr Milburn is the one he would like to throw him off. And as for the 'really, really good answer' to Mr Marr's original question; that, in the Chancellor's eyes, would be: 'No, never, I wouldn't dare, the very thought of challenging Gordon!' At which point Mr Milburn would have pledged tearful fealty to Big Brown in the manner of the cured Winston Smith.

The fact that he did not suggests to some that Mr Milburn has become addicted to hopeless acts of vengeance, and to the whiff of death that accompanies the lethal sport of Brown-baiting. According to this analysis, the MP for Darlington is in the grip of a psychosis that will see him splattered once more across Whitehall, roadkill under the tartan juggernaut. This may indeed be Mr Milburn's fate. But it is not inconsistent with such a conclusion about his political life-expectancy to suspect that there is method in his madness.

He may be signing his own death warrant.

But he may also know what he is doing.

Mr Milburn's behaviour has shed light on a deep fissure in the collective Blairite psyche. A Downing Street official told me the other day that he was going to have a flutter on Mr Brown failing to become Prime Minister -- but only because the odds were so superb. The eventual ascent of Mr Brown to the top job is, and has long been treated as, a given in the Blairite camp. But since last autumn there has been serious division among the Prime Minister's allies over the best way to handle what they regard as a regrettable inevitability.

The first strategy was road-tested as long ago as July 2004 by Peter Mandelson. In a television interview with Alastair Campbell, he said that when Tony Blair stood down, 'Gordon Brown will be his New Labour successor. …

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