The past week or so has seen a huge escalation in the Blairite campaign to persuade David Miliband to contest the Labour leadership against Gordon Brown, irrespective of his earlier denials of interest. This reached a culmination on Saturday with the publication of this piece by the uber-Blairite commentator Martin Kettle, which, for sheer partisanship and mischief-making, ranks as quite possibly the most disingenuous piece of political commentary I have read in recent years.
My own thoughts on the wisdom or likelihood of a Miliband candidature were published in my Saturday columns in the Newcastle Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph and can also now be heard HERE as a podcast.
I continue to hold to the view that while Miliband does not want to enter the contest, recognising that to do so would split the Labour Party and potentially destroy both him and Brown, there may be circumstances in which he is ultimately obliged to.
I venture that it is a slightly more balanced and objective assessment than Mr Kettle's, and, accordingly, I am breaking my usual custom and reproducing it here in full.
TWO weeks ago in this column I looked at how the debate was shaping up over the future make-up of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet if and when he finally makes it Number 10 later this year.
Putting my neck on the block somewhat, I predicted that South Shields MP David Miliband may well scoop the plum job of becoming Brown’s first Chancellor.
I should probably have known better. A week is a long time in politics as we all know, and in the space of a fortnight the speculation about Mr Miliband’s future has reached a new fever pitch.
In short, it is now anyone’s guess where he might now end up – with some even suggesting he might yet pip Gordon to the top job itself.
Of course, Mr Miliband’s public position on this is well-known, and in fairness to him has remained consistent throughout the long months of uncertainty over Labour’s future.
“I am not a runner nor a rider for any of the jobs that are being speculated about,” he said last autumn, and he has subsequently given Mr Brown his explicit backing.
Yet those protestations of loyalty seem to have been at least partially undone by his unfortunate gaffe on last week’s BBC Question Time.
“I predict that when I come back on this programme in six months or a year’s time, people will be saying ‘wouldn’t it be great to have that Tony Blair back because we can’t stand that Gordon Brown’,” he said.
Now it is fairly clear to me that this was merely an attempt to make a general point about the nature of politics that just came out wrong.
What Mr Miliband almost certainly meant to say was that people always criticise the incumbent Prime Minister, whoever they are, and that this is no particular reflection on them.
But Mr Blair’s allies seem to have treated it as the green light to reopen the debate over whether Mr Brown should be challenged, and try to push Mr Miliband towards the starting blocks.
A report last Saturday stated that “senior Blairites” continued to hold out hopes of Mr Miliband changing his mind, and that some have pressed him to do so.
Well, it was only a matter of time before one of those “senior Blairites” stuck their head above the parapet, and sure enough this week saw former welfare minister Frank Field step into the breach.
He said on Wednesday: “The question [is] who by their very presence shouts at the electorate that New Labour has already moved on to the next stage of its life. Step forward, David Miliband.”
Some of this has to be taken as the outworking of old grudges from a man who blames the Chancellor for blocking his welfare reform plans in 1997-98 and his subsequent sacking.
But even by raising the issue, Mr Field is helping to create a climate in which a challenge to Mr Brown becomes seen as not only possible but probable.
So what will Mr Miliband do about it? Well, all the evidence continues to suggest that his protestations are genuine, and that he remains an extremely reluctant challenger for the leadership.
According to last Saturday’s report, he is exasperated that people will not take his denials at face value, telling one friend: “Do I have to chop off an arm to prove it?”
He is in any case smart enough to realise that he is being offered little chance of victory, and that the internal party arithmetic works almost inexorably in Mr Brown’s favour.
Mr Miliband knows he will have a much better chance of the leadership next time round, having made it to the upper reaches of the Cabinet a good five years before most of his contemporaries.
Furthermore, friends of the Environment Secretary say he concluded some time ago that a contest between him and Mr Brown would split the Labour Party and destroy them both.
It is hard to dispute that analysis. To mount a plausible challenge to Mr Brown, Mr Miliband would have to portray the Chancellor as “Old Labour,” or at least as insufficiently “New” Labour.
Even if Mr Brown still won, his standing in the eyes of the electorate will have been permanently damaged.
It would, quite simply, play straight into the hands of David Cameron, and open the way to a Conservative victory in 2009/10 which might put Mr Miliband in opposition for a decade.
And yet, and yet…there could still come a point at which Mr Miliband’s hand may eventually be forced, and he is obliged to throw his hat into the ring after all.
What we are really seeing here is the natural outworking of the principle that politics abhors a vacuum, and that when such a vacuum is created, sooner or later someone has to step forward and fill it.
David Miliband’s problem is that he is overwhelmingly seen as the most likely person to be able to mount a successful challenge to Mr Brown.
It therefore follows that if the mood in the party reaches a point where such a challenge is seen to be desirable or even necessary, it will be hard for Mr Miliband to duck out of it.
Perhaps the most recent example of a politician who found himself in a similar position was Michael Portillo in 1995.
In the end, he did duck out of challenging John Major at a time when he looked eminently beatable – and thereafter never shed the reputation for lacking the killer instinct.
To put it another way, it can sometimes be the way in politics that challenging for a job and losing is actually less damaging than not challenging for it at all.
Mr Miliband will be fervently hoping it doesn’t come to that. But the truth is, it just might.