Saturday, August 02, 2008

Miliband knocks at the door of Number 10

It's game on for the Labour leadership after David Miliband set out his stall this week - and Britain looks set to get another Prime Minister from a North-East constituency. Here's my column in today's Journal.

***

Harold Wilson famously coined the phrase that a week is a long time in politics. But had the pipe-smoking legend lived in the era of the 24/7 news media, he might have said it was an eternity.

Events have moved thick and fast since, a week ago, I concluded that Gordon Brown’s nightmare scenario going into the conference season would be to deliver his keynote speech against a backdrop of party dissension and open revolt.

Seven days on, I suspect the Prime Minister would now regard it as an achievement if he even makes it as far as the podium in Manchester next month with his leadership intact.

What has changed? In two words, David Miliband. The Foreign Secretary and South Shields MP, widely criticised last year for not having had the bottle to fight Gordon Brown for the top job, has finally decided to stand up and be counted.

Of course, Mr Miliband has denied that his article in Wednesday’s Guardian was intended as anything resembling a Labour leadership challenge. He had little option but to do so

He is, after all, treading a very fine line between careful positioning and outright disloyalty, and already two backbench MPs have called for him to be sacked over it.

But you do not write an article like that at a time of maximum vulnerability for the Prime Minister if you are not, at the very least, letting it be known that you would be available in the event of a vacancy.

Hence unless Mr Miliband is now forced to beat a humiliating retreat – which, if he does, will finish him for good as a leadership contender – it’s game on.

On the face of it, his much-pored-over Guardian piece said little that was new or original. In one sense, it was full of the kind of meaningless vacuities we have come to expect from New Labour politicians.

But for those whose job is it is to look for such things – the media, and Labour MPs – the signs were all there.

There was the non-mention of Mr Brown. The implicit criticism of his failure to get across Labour’s message by being insufficiently humble about its shortcomings. The attempt to set out a fresh “vision” for the party – something Mr Brown has palpably failed to do.

Above all, perhaps, the article radiated a sense of optimism that has been missing from Labour of late, almost as if Mr Miliband was telling his party only he could give it back its self-confidence.

Is Mr Miliband really an ideal candidate for Labour leader? Well, no. He still lacks enough experience for my liking, and has not exactly been a conspicuous success as Foreign Secretary.

But from an electoral point of view, he does at least negate some of Mr Brown's perceived drawbacks - for instance he is young, English, and reasonably charming on a human level.

Most importantly, he was not responsible for every mistake in economic and social policy that has been made by New Labour since 1997 – a legacy that is proving increasingly poisonous for Mr Brown.

One other point in his favour that is rarely mentioned is that he has a deep understanding of Labour history – something which distinguishes him from his old mentor, Tony Blair.

On these pages a couple of months back, I made clear my own preference for another North-East MP, Darlington’s Alan Milburn, on the grounds that he can offer greater experience combined with relative freshness.

I still think there was an opportunity for the former health secretary following the Crewe and Nantwich and Henley by-elections to steal a march on the potential Cabinet contenders by coming out publicly against Mr Brown.

It would have made his Cabinet rivals look lily-livered by comparison and put Mr Milburn in the vanguard of the growing Dump Brown faction among the party's grassroots.

But it didn't happen, and it's now clear from Mr Miliband's intervention that, far from allowing a leftfield stalking-horse like Mr Milburn to do their dirty work, the Cabinet contenders are preparing to move against the PM themselves.

Neither is it just Mr Miliband who has been making plans. Deputy leader Harriet Harman was forced to deny this week that she was assembling a leadership bid, but her actions are almost as transparent as the Foreign Secretary’s.

Some commentators are already convinced that, although as many as six candidates could enter the fray, it will boil down to a contest between Mr Miliband on the right and Ms Harman on the soft-left.

Those who argue Ms Harman could pull it off point to her success in last year’s deputy leadership election and her evident popularity with some sections of the party.

But electing a deputy leader is not quite the same as electing a Prime Minister, and somehow, I think Labour MPs, union leaders and party members will be mindful of that fact.

There has been talk of Mr Brown seeking a truce with Mr Miliband by making him Chancellor in the autumn reshuffle and formally anointing him as his heir apparent, but Mr Miliband would be mad to accept this.
Firstly, to be Chancellor of the Exchequer in the midst of the current economic downturn is a poisoned chalice, as Alistair Darling has found. Secondly, it would tie him in too closely to Mr Brown’s own electoral fate.

Most of all, though, if Mr Miliband allows himself to be bought-off now, after having also backed away from the fight last year, he will forever go down as the Michael Portillo of the Labour Party.

Mr Portillo, it should be remembered, was the promising young Tory hopeful who backed off from challenging John Major in 1995 at a point where he could have won. His career never recovered.

Will Mr Miliband win? In my view, yes. There will be a huge desire on the part of party members to signal a fresh start for Labour by drawing a line under the now discredited Blair-Brown generation, and he will be the beneficiary of that.

That’s bad news for the likes of Jack Straw, but timing is all in politics, and the graveyards are full of politicians who might once have made good Prime Ministers but who missed their time.

Between the retirement of Seaham’s Ramsay Macdonald in 1935 and the election of Sedgefield’s Tony Blair in 1997, the North-East had to wait 62 years for a Prime Minister who represented a seat in the region.

Now, just 14 months from Mr Blair’s own departure, it seems odds-on that another one is about to come along.

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12 comments:

Stephen said...

I think you seriously underestimate the lovely Harriet; it wasn't that far back that no-one was giving her a prayer in the Deputy Leadership contest. David Miliband has made no mark whatever during his time in government, and your description of the newspaper article as vacuous seriously overstates its substance. I doubt if you'd find a single member of the general public outside political activists who could tell you anything about him other than that he's like Mr Bean (well, it's a good place to start I suppose).

Harriet on the other hand has definitely achieved a public profile that includes some political substance, love her or loath her. She'd be more voter-friendly than many imagine; she's very much at the posh end of middle-class and voters seem to go for that sort of thing.

I put real money down on Harriet at my local bookies some time ago now and I'd be surprised if I don't see a good return on my investment before too long now.

mike smithson said...

What about Harold Macmillan who was MP for Stockton? He held the seat there until 1945.

thomas said...

Harold Wilson famous credit as the coiner of the phrase "a week is a long time in politics" is a piece of classic image management - arguably the classic example from post-war UK politics.

Eternal truths like that are endlessly recycled to fit events and this was one which was prompted by a studious civil servant who auggested use of a similar phrase to one found in documents relating to comments on the progress of the Vienna Congress in 1815, which in turn were evidence of truly classical scholarship quoting from ancient Alexandrine correspondance.

False attributions like this is only one way in which perceptions are manipulated and you fall into the trap of complicity by repitition.

But then, I guess we always knew you liked Harold Wilson and his pipe and pint (there's another piece of manipulation).

Stephen said...

Perhaps thomas could share his sources with the rest of us, since 'someone somewhere said it before but we don't know exactly who they were' is a little short on exactitude.

Paul Linford said...

Mike

I was writing about MPs who have represented North-East seats at the time they served as Prime Minister. There has only been one of those since Macdonald, and that was Blair.

Phil said...

I just don't get the Miliband thing. Pop along to Youtube and watch some of his public appearances to understand. Ignore the ones on his own channel, look at the third party videos.

In this one (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsBJAzYjpN4), at 50 seconds in, the presenter is introducing him to the audience, but Miliband has found a flyer under his seat which is much more interesting to him than the hundreds of people in the audience.

Or lets try Peter Hitchens versus Miliband on Question Time (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cXH_72v1MU). Hitchens rants (correctly on this occasion) for two minutes whilst Miliband experiments with different facial expressions to conceal his discomfort. When you are sent in to Question Time as the Labour party rep, you are well briefed in advance. You have an answer to everything, and you certainly don't turn your back on a two minute polemic from the Daily Mail.

Occasionally, I see a David Miliband who is eloquent and charming. At other times, I see a blustering fool from Planet Redwood.

Laban said...

"... he is young, English, and reasonably charming ..."

"Born in London, David Miliband is the elder son of Polish-born Marion Kozak and the late Belgian-born Marxist theoretician Ralph Miliband"

Is that English the way Kipling, Spike Milligan and Cliff Richard are/were Indian ?

Dirty Euro said...

Blair backs milliband.
about as useful for Milliband as
Max Moseley backs Milliband.
I think the Blair memo has scupperred his leadership challenge the last thing Milliband wants is to be know as Blair's puppet. What an idiot Blair has been. This makes it obvious he was organising the plots against the PM. He thinks this memo will help. How?
The memo is the best thing that could have happned to the PM.
Blair is like a master crimnal that just has one error he wants to boast to everyone on the crime he has done.

thomas said...

Stephen, "politics is the art of defying conventional wisdom and you, sir, are clearly no politician".

Zenobia said...

Well I am English and he leaves me stone cold. Can't you get it yet, we loathe the whole lot of this apalling government - and changing leaders at this point in time is as useful as changing captains on the Titanic.

The ship is sinking - and it doesn't matter who is at the helm - it's going down fast.

Never mind that this would be the second unelected PM imposed upon us.

Of course he could call an early election and we can sink them before they have totally destroyed the country - but that would take courage and principles, both of which are sadly lacking in the present labour party.

Londinium said...

You're right about Miliband. He now has to go for it, or he'll forever look like someone who bottles it when the moment of truth comes.

He's also destroyed any chance Brown may have had of stabilising his premiership. Speculation about the leadership won't go away as long as the two of them are in the same government.

one of the above said...

Miliband should really do something about that splodge of paint on his hair, it makes him look like he can't see where he's going.