Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Has Milburn's time now come?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the following sentences in my Saturday Column in the Newcastle Journal.

"Potentially the most promising “change candidate” is Darlington MP Alan Milburn, whose still-youthful appearance belies his five years’ Cabinet experience. More importantly, he alone among Labour’s big-hitters has demonstrated an appetite for thinking outside the box. Whether he actually wants the job is unclear, but in my view, this could be his time."

Today, as I noted earlier, Mike Smithson on PoliticalBetting.com has claimed that Milburn is preparing to challenge Brown for the leadership if Thursday's Crewe and Nantwich by-election turns out as disastrously for Labour as everyone is now predicting.

I have no idea if the story is true, although as Iain Dale has already noted, Mike is not the sort to take a punt on such a tale. But as I have previously made clear, in the event of a leadership vacancy, the former health secretary would in my view be an extremely strong candidate.

Like most on the centre-left who hoped that under Gordon the Labour Party would rediscover its lost moral compass, I have been extremely saddened by what has happened to his premiership over the past seven or eight months.

Granted, he has not played his cards well - although the critical strategic error was not cancelling the autumn election as most allege, but allowing the speculation about an autumn election to get out of control in the first place.

Much of what has happened since then, however, has either been down to the incompetence of minor officials and party functionaries (discgate, David Abrahams) or, in the case of Northern Rock and the whole gamut of issues stemming from the global credit cruch, down to economic circumstances way beyond his control.

If he cannot now recover - more specifically, if the voters of Crewe and Nantwich deliver him a knockout blow - then Milburn is in my view the next best choice to lead the party into the next General Election.

In historical terms, it would be a bold move. Milburn would be the first premier since Churchill to take over mid-term while not occupying a major office of state (Eden, Home, and Callaghan all went from the Foreign Office to No 10, Macmillan, Major and Brown from the Treasury) and Churchill had of course previously been both Home Secretary and Chancellor.

Of the three current holders of the major offices, David Miliband has been much touted but is still less than fully-formed as a politician in my view, much as William Hague was when it fell to him to lead the Tories. He is still in the next-leader-but-one category.

The younger contenders - the likes of Purnell, Balls, Burnham and Ed Miliband - are even more lacking in experience and gravitas, while the older hands - Straw, Johnson, Harriet Harman - have simply been around the block too many times now.

At 49, Milburn is the right age for No 10 and having served in Blair's Cabinet, but not in Brown's, can combine top-level experience with relative freshness, enabling him to more credibly claim to be the "change the country needs" than Brown has been able to do.

It is true that he lacks a power base in the party, but then so do most of the other names that have been mentioned. There has never been a "Straw-ite" faction or a "Johnsonite" faction for instance, and even Miliband has allegedly failed to cultivate much of a following in the PLP.

It is also true that there have been various unsubstantiated rumours about his private life prior to his present relationship which, in the context of a leadership election, could result in a certain amount of mud being flung, as indeed was flung at Gordon in 1994.

Milburn would also have to overcome the suggestion of dilettanteism arising from his two Cabinet resignations. Some claimed it was a case of "can't stand the heat," but I genuinely believe he made a long-range calculation about his chances of succeeding Blair, correctly realised that Brown had it in the bag, and resigned to spend more time with his young sons at what was a critical age for them (they are older now.)

One thing I always believed though was that Milburn would return to frontline politics. Could this now be a case of "cometh the hour, cometh the man?"

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6 comments:

Paul Linford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with you. I admire Alan Milburn and as you say he is able to "think outside the box". Much of his thinking is in accord with what many of us want - he was an excellent Health Secretary and would have achieved more in this role without Gordon Brown blocking many reforms. He is innovative and for a politician seems to be more in touch with the public.

He is also a likeable man and well able to hold his ground without offending. With Charles Clarke, he set up a website which discussed policy issues - it was innovative and educational.

I would love him to stand. He has the ability, the political clout and the personality to be leader.

Jane

Justin said...

Well thank you very much, Paul. I don't know whether to laugh till I'm sick or lie awake in terror at this idea.

Milburn is a political lightweight. High-handed, bouffanted and never met a principle he couldn't jettison for the sake of his career.

In that sense I suppose he would be the perfect New Labour leader but surely you haven't forgotten the utterly amateurish general election campaign he ran in 2005 that Gordon Brown had to rescue? And you think he could run the country? Milburn's follies inspired some of my best blogging in that period.

Also, I'm not sure many women with ambitions within the Labour Party would welcome this arrogant, strutting, macho peacock's ascendancy.

Paul Linford said...

Justin

I agree with you up to a point. Milburn is a political lightweight compared with Gordon, but then again so is David Cameron and he's currently 20 points ahead of Gordon in the polls.

My point is that being an undoubted political heavyweight or "big clunking fist" seems to be doing Gordon - and more importantly the Labour Party - a fat lot of good right now. Maybe the public wants a certain lightness of touch in its political leaders and Milburn has that.

I make no bones about the fact that the past few months have involved a certain amount of recanting on my part. I genuinely thought the public would welcome Gordon's more serious style of leadership after ten years of Bliar, but it appears I was wrong about that.

As for the 2005 GE campaign, the problem was not Brown or Milburn, it was Bliar and the fact that the country was wanted to give him a bloody nose over Iraq without actually going so far as to let Howard in.

MorrisOx said...

The problem with the economy is not just about circumstances beyond Brown's control, Paul. The bigger issue is that it is circumstances outside the experience of many of the politicians and their policy advisors.

I have it on good authority that the team in Downing Street is 'frayed and frazzled' by economic conditions they have never lived through before, and seriously worried about a housing market they simply don't know how to tackle.

This is what's at the bottom of some of the stories that allude to a lack of policy direction on Brown's part. Neither he - nor anyon else - is entirely sure what to do about a scenario they've never dealt with before.

No one should suppose that the Tories have a magical answer, either, as David Cameron's carefully-constructed policy speech made clear yesterday.

We're in uncharted waters, and Brown's natural disinclination to share his thinking (unless it's one of his trantrums) ain't helping his team one jot.

Innocent Abroad said...

Neither Brown, Milburn nor anyone else can deal with the basic problem.

For virtually all of Labour's existence class was the source of political cleavage in England, although religion continued to matter in Scotland and Wales. Traditionally, Labour showed a Livingstonian dexterity in appealing to Catholics in the former and nonconformists in the latter.

But it is certainly arguable that race is now as important as class in British politics. Most of those who were in the highly unionised "labour aristocracy" of former generations - the core of the Party - have gone, their children now in white-collar work, with more individualist aspirations. The white working class who remain are from those sections which only ever weakly identified with the Party, if at all.

The elections to the GLA Assembly, where Labour performed relatively better in middle-class multi-ethnic areas than in white working-class east London point to a challenge that is quite new for the Party.

The problem really is that Blair's centrism is exhausted: it is not renewable in office, and may not be in opposition either - particularly if, in government, Cameron picks a fight with his right wing over Europe (probably) or immigration and wins. There's no reason to think that triangulation is something only Blairs or Clintons can do.

Our politics is in suspense, waiting for a well-funded charismatically led right-wing populist Party. I expect it to arrive towards the end of Cameron's first term, and surely no later than the middle of his second. Even the present UKIP/BNP ragbag are capable of polling 10% between them.

Competent and resourced leadership will double that. We are staring down the barrel of a four-way split, with the Tories taking 40% and three other parties 20% each. If Cameron's half as bright as I think he is he will seek to bring it to pass.

No one in the Labour movement seems to have twigged this (with the possible exception of John Cruddas).

There will be a real political crisis when the Tories become exhausted by office yet there is no Party capable of building a wide-ranging alternative.