If David Miliband is to become Labour leader, he will have to win it from the centre, not by surrounding himself with Blairite "ultras." Here's my column in today's Newcastle Journal.
With the new football season almost upon us, hundreds of thousands of armchair fans will doubtless be spending the next few days selecting their Fantasy League sqauds for 2008/2009.
But as far as political journalists are concerned, there is nothing they enjoy more at this otherwise lean time of the year than a good old game of Fantasy Cabinets.
So it wasn’t entirely surprising this week to find one national newspaper attempting to guess the shape of David Miliband’s government line-up before the poor man has even got as far as the starting-line in a leadership race.
The South Shields MP, we are told, will appoint his fellow North-East Blairite, Darlington’s Alan Milburn, to the job of Chancellor if he succeeds in replacing Gordon Brown.
On the face of it, they might seem like a good combination, a political Sutton and Shearer – or for Newcastle fans with longer memories, a Macdonald and Tudor, perhaps.
Here, after all, are two youngish, thrusting reformers with the energy, charisma and above all fresh ideas to revive Labour’s moribund political fortunes.
But to return to the footballing analogy, in Labour Party terms it is a bit like playing David Beckham and David Bentley – two right-wingers – in the same England XI. It makes the team look unbalanced.
And if the 43-year-old Foreign Secretary is serious about winning the Labour leadership, putting together a balanced ticket is going to be absolutely key to his prospects.
It is not hard to see why this should be the case. Although Mr Miliband has few personal enemies in the Labour Party, he is instinctively distrusted by many as a “Blair Mark 2.”
Although Mr Miliband’s politics are rather more nuanced than this – in some respects he is well to the left of his old boss – there are some who would view his candidacy as a sort of restoration project.
Hence the very last thing he needs is to be seen to be teaming up with Mr Milburn, who apart from his old chum Stephen Byers is about the most dyed-in-the-wool Blairite “ultra” around.
What he needs is to be seen to be reaching out not to his natural allies on the right of the party, but to his potential opponents on the centre-left.
In the light of all this, it is understandable that many observers this week saw the claims about a “Mili-Mil” leadership plot as a piece of black propaganda by the Brownites to discredit the Foreign Secretary.
Indeed, so successful does it appear to have been in this regard that I wonder if the Prime Minister’s old spinmeister Charlie Whelan is back at his side.
The genius of the story – if indeed it did have Mr Brown’s fingerprints on it – was that it played exactly into the party’s fears about what Mr Miliband might do as leader.
No matter that Mr Milburn himself has dismissed the reports, in terms, as “balls” – enough seeds of doubt will have been planted to make people think twice about the whole enterprise.
So let me indulge in a bit of Fantasy Cabinet-making myself on Mr Miliband’s behalf, of the kind that would suggest he is genuinely reaching out to all sides of the party.
The two people who are going to be crucial in any leadership contest – the kingmakers in my view – are the health secretary Alan Johnson in the centre, and the former deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas on the left.
I wrote a fortnight ago that Mr Miliband’s old friendship with Mr Johnson dating back to their days as education ministers could be central to his chances, and I stand by that.
Many MPs would like Mr Johnson to stand himself, but failing that, his endorsement will carry huge weight.
As for Mr Cruddas, it was he who swung the deputy leadership for Harriet Harman last year after making clear on the BBC’s Question Time that his second-preference vote would go her way.
But the job he really wants is not the deputy leadership, but that of reforming the party’s internal structures and galvanising its decrepit grassroots organisation.
If Mr Miliband really is in the business of handing out Cabinet jobs in advance, he should promise Mr Johnson the job of Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Cruddas the party chairmanship.
With those two on board, he could make a powerful case that, far from being a divisive “Blairite,” he is really the candidate who can unite this fractious, divided party.
As for Mr Milburn, while there should clearly be a place for him in any post-Brown administration, I doubt if that place is the Treasury.
Although the Darlington MP was briefly Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1998-99,
his real political talents lie in blue-sky thinking and communicating a vision, rather than figures and grasp of detail.
Indeed he has the kind of skillset that is required more for No 10 than for No 11, which is one of the reasons I have previously advocated him as a leadership contender.
I can see him being offered a Cabinet Office cross-cutting role to "think the unthinkable," possibly looking at policies across the piece to kick-start social mobility, his pet subject.
In the final analysis, Mr Miliband needs to keep his eyes not just on the internal party selectorate but on the broader electoral picture.
If the idea of a “Blair Mark 2” is unpopular within the Labour Party, it is not likely to prove any less so amongst the public as a whole.
The main reason Mr Brown has proved an unpopular Prime Minister is because he was unable to be the change the country wanted after his predecessor’s long reign.
Mr Miliband must base his appeal not just on the fact that he isn’t Gordon Brown. He must make clear that he isn’t Tony Blair either.