Saturday, February 18, 2012

What next for David Miliband?

It was Clement Attlee who famously told a Labour colleague that a period of silence from him would now be welcome, thereby inadvertently earning himself an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations.

And it is certainly true that there are times in politics when it is best to keep your head down and your mouth shut.

By and large, the past 15 months have been such a period for David Miliband, the South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary who, until October 2010, had been widely expected to become leader of his party.

But it wasn't to be and, rather than risk the sort of comparisons that might have undermined his younger brother's leadership, the elder Miliband stood bank from the political frontline and confined his public statements to the occasional supportive message.

Such was ostensibly the nature of his article in the New Statesman a couple of weeks back in which he outlined a seven-point plan for the future of the party and called for “restless thinking” in its bid to recapture power.

He made a point of praising his brother Ed on no fewer than four occasions, highlighting his success in maintaining party unity, and having spoken out "powerfully" over issues such as welfare cutbacks.

But that, of course, did not stop the political commentariat once more portraying David’s intervention as a covert leadership bid.

The resulting furore saw Mr Miliband forced into another round of interviews in which he appeared to rule out any return to the frontbench on the grounds that it would merely perpetuate the “soap opera.”

One rather venomous interpretation of his actions came from the Telegraph columnist Matthew Norman in an article headlined: ‘The sniping and self-pity of a truly feeble man.’

Likening Mr Miliband’s political modus operandi to the game of Knock Down Ginger, he accused him of thrice raising the standard of internal revolt before “scuttling away to hide in the bushes.”

“The pattern was set in the summer of 2008, when David wrote a barely coded article in the Guardian lacerating Gordon Brown. The moment it was greeted as the challenge to the PM’s authority that it certainly was, off he scarpered, denying any such intent,” he wrote.

“Within a year, his close friend and Cabinet ally James Purnell resigned, laying the ground for David to oust Mr Brown by doing the same. Again he bottled it, and stayed."

Mr Norman saw the New Statesman article, and the semi-retreat that followed it, as more of the same, going on to suggest a permanent silence from a man he charmingly described as “a mincing paean to metrosexual narcissism.”

It was left to the former Labour North official and Blairite blogger Hopi Sen to leap to Mr Miliband’s defence, pointedly describing Mr Norman as a “food writer” alongside various other less polite terms.

But beneath all this knockabout lies a serious point - namely what is to become of a politician who still has much to say about the future direction of his party – but who is unable to say it without his actions being either over- or mis-interpreted?

As one of those ubiquitous ‘friends’ put it: “This is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the Labour Party. The way the cookie has crumbled, the only way he can do that is through argument and debate.”

Perhaps the real purpose of David’s New Statesman article was to find out whether he can actually now start to contribute to that debate without others seeing it as an attempt to further destabilise his brother’s somewhat faltering leadership.

If that was indeed his intention, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

Sadly, the likely upshot of this is that Mr Miliband may well come to feel that the only way to end the soap opera will be for him to remove himself from the political arena entirely, and leave Parliament at the next general election.

And given his stature in both the country and the region, I, for one, would consider that a shame.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Milburn machinations show governnment's desperation

Back in 2003, I went along to a Downing Street press briefing along with the rest of the Westminster media corps expecting to be given details of Tony Blair's latest Cabinet reshuffle.

We emerged 20 minutes later with the very surprising news that the health secretary, Alan Milburn, had resigned from the government, saying he wanted to spend more time up North with his young family.

The sudden departure from government of the then Darlington MP, who until then had been widely tipped as a future candidate for the party leadership, was possibly the most unexpected resignation of the Blair years.

But for shock value, it would have paled into insignificance if this week's rumours about a Cabinet comeback for Mr Milburn - in the very same job he abruptly left nine years ago - had actually come to pass.

The story went that a newly-ennobled Lord Milburn would be brought back by David Cameron to push through the health reforms that Gordon Brown succeeded in blocking nine years ago.

The Prime Minister would then be able to claim - as he already has with Michael Gove's education reforms - that he is merely carrying on the work that Mr Blair and New Labour began, thereby strengthening his claim to the political centre ground.

It seems likely from what has emerged this week that this bizarre proposal was at least discussed at some level in Number Ten, even if those discussions didn’t actually get as far as Mr Milburn himself.

But the fact that such a conversation could even take place at all is an indication of the mess that the Coalition has got itself into over its own attempts to reform the NHS - and in particular the position of the current health secretary, Andrew Lansley.

Government colleagues of Mr Lansley were pulling few punches this week as his flagship Health and Social Care bill suffered another mauling in the House of Lords.

“Andrew Lansley should be taken out and shot. He’s messed up both the communication and the substance of the policy,” a Downing Street source was quoted as saying.

Of course, had Mr Cameron wanted to get rid of him, he had a perfect opportunity to do so last week with the mini-reshuffle sparked by the enforced resignation of the energy secretary Chris Huhne.

But as I have noted before, the Prime Minister hates reshuffles, having apparently been warned against them by former Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell, and for now, Mr Lansley retains his “full confidence.”

To those of us who have been following the progress of the government’s attempts to introduce greater competition into the NHS - and hand over the running of it to reluctant GPs - none of this should have come as any great surprise.

Mr Cameron has been warned on several occasions that the reforms, which are opposed by just about every leading professional body within the service, risked becoming his Poll Tax.

His apparent obduracy over the issue is all the more surprising in the light of his determined efforts before the last election to “detoxify” the Tory brand when it came to the NHS.

As the Conservative Home website pointed out yesterday; “David Cameron’s greatest political achievement as Leader of the Opposition was to neutralise health as an issue. The greatest mistake of his time as Prime Minister has been to put it back at the centre of political debate.”

Plans are now being laid for a debate at the Liberal Democrat spring conference which is expected to result in fresh calls for the bill to be scrapped, if it hasn’t been already by then.

And Labour’s shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has shrewdly called for cross-party talks on a compromise deal which could see the non-contentious parts of the bill covering public health, social care and GP commissioning kept, while scrapping the bits relating to extending the private sector.

It is understood that this option is now being seriously canvassed within the government, but if adopted it would of course represent a complete humiliation for the health secretary.

When Mr Milburn walked out of the health department, Westminster was genuinely stunned. The greater surprise this time round would be if Mr Lansley stays put.

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Saturday, February 04, 2012

Advantage Tory right as Huhne exits stage left

So farewell then, Chris Huhne – well for the time being at any rate, as the erstwhile Energy Secretary quits in order to fight charges of perverting the course of justice in relation to a driving offence committed in 2003.

The leading Liberal Democrat politician was left with no choice but to resign from the Cabinet yesterday after effectively being charged with lying to the police over whether he or his ex-wife was driving at the time of the incident.

Mr Huhne, who continues to deny the charges, will now have to clear his name if he is to stand any chance of resuming what has been an eventful career over the course of less than seven years as an MP.

For now, though, his Lib Dem colleagues will have to manage without his combative presence around the Cabinet table as the curse that has seemed to bedevil the party’s senior figures since the last election strikes again.

They lost their cleverest minister, David Laws, within 16 days of the Coalition taking office, and nearly lost their most well-known, Vince Cable, over his ill-judged pledge to destroy the Murdoch empire – uttered before it succeeded in destroying itself.

Now they have lost their most abrasive in Mr Huhne, the stoutest defender of the party’s interests within the government and, by some distance, the Tory backbenches’ least-favourite Liberal Democrat.

Few Tory tears will be shed at his departure. Right-wing internet bloggers who have had Mr Huhne in their sights for some time were literally cracking open the champagne yesterday morning – and one even posted a video of himself doing so.

The evident Tory glee demonstrates the fact that Mr Huhne’s enforced resignation is likely significantly to alter the balance of power within the Cabinet in their favour.

His successor Ed Davey is a capable minister who deserves his Cabinet promotion - but he is no Chris Huhne, described by one commentator yesterday as a “political bulldozer who would try relentlessly to get his way, and who was not averse to media shenanigans to advance his cause.”

It was Mr Huhne, rather than Nick Clegg, who led the attack on the Tories over their handling of the referendum on the voting system last May, when Mr Cameron gave the green light for a series of bitter personal attacks against the Lib Dem leader.

And it was he who articulated the Lib Dem rage over Mr Cameron’s decision to veto a new EU treaty at the Brussels summit in December.

What gave Mr Huhne a particular degree of authority within the Cabinet was his strong power base within the party as a two-time leadership contender and de facto leader of the party’s social democratic tendency.

He could very well have become his party’s leader instead of Mr Clegg, had not a pre-Christmas postal strike in 2007 led to thousands of votes in his party’s leadership election arriving after the ballot boxes had closed.

Until yesterday, he would have been the likeliest replacement for Mr Clegg were the latter to have been forced out by party activists still grumbling over his decision to join the Coalition.

Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron, the party’s distinctly Coalition-sceptic president, now looks odds-on for that role, possibly as soon as 2015 in the event of Mr Clegg’s three-way marginal Sheffield Hallam seat turning either red or blue next time round.

The short-term impact, then, of Mr Huhne’s departure is that it will embolden the Tory right and make this look even more obviously a Conservative-led government than it already is.

This in turn will be good news for Labour and Ed Miliband, whose essential line of attack on the Coalition is that it is a Tory government in all but name, and who this week restored some of his party’s sagging morale by putting Mr Cameron on the back foot over bankers’ bonuses.

The real nightmare scenario for the government, though, would come if Mr Huhne were to go to jail – forcing a by-election in his highly marginal seat of Eastleigh which would pitch the Lib Dems and the Tories against eachother.

And the potential consequences of that for the Coalition hardly need spelling out.

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