Alan Milburn: 'I feel better. I get more time with the kids. I have less worry. But never say never again ...'

The Monday Interview: Former Secretary of State for Health
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The Independent Online

When Alan Milburn made a speech about the work-life balance last month, it was his turn to look after his two sons, so he dragged them down to London to listen to his address.

The boys were unimpressed. Joe, 12, said he had "heard it all before" and refused to sit in the room. Danny, aged seven, sat in the front row, yawned and afterwards told his father it was "boring".

Ten months after Mr Milburn shocked the political world by leaving the Cabinet to spend more time with his family, the former secretary of state for health says his new life is "a million times better".

This weekend, the "new man" was not fretting about the ministerial red boxes that used to pile in the hall of the family home in Stocksfield in the Tyne Valley; he was worrying whether the men coming to measure blinds and fix the television would turn up.

But it would be a mistake to think Mr Milburn has given up on politics. He jokes that he still "gets an earful" from his partner, Ruth Briel, a part-time NHS psychiatrist, for doing too much of it. She interjects, saying he deserves it. Since leaving the Cabinet, he has become an outrider for the New Labour project, still sees Tony Blair "fairly regularly" and is advising him on the election manifesto.

When the Prime Minister upset many in his Cabinet by not consulting them about a Europe referendum, Mr Milburn, Stephen Byers and Peter Mandelson, all former ministers, were first to rally behind him.

So Mr Milburn is still in the thick of things. He regrets nothing about his departure, but misses some things about his old job. "You get an opportunity to do good. You pull levers and eventually something might happen. I miss the people in the NHS a lot," he says.

"When you walk out, you are not sure. But my life is a lot better. Even now, 10 months later, people keep coming up to me to say, 'You look so much better.' I feel better. I get more time with the kids. I have less worry and more time."

Typically, he now spends three nights a week in London and the rest at the family home instead of five or six nights in the capital. The big difference is the weekends. The red boxes were "like a nagging tooth-ache". Now he can have a weekend off, spend real time with his sons and join them on the giant trampoline in the garden.

He is convinced he is a better politician, partly because he can spend more time in his Darlington constituency. "I have more time to think. When you are a cabinet minister, it is very difficult to get that opportunity to take a step back. The rollercoaster is getting faster, not slower."

Mr Blair has certainly been on the rollercoaster in the past two weeks. But Mr Milburn dismisses speculation that the Prime Minister might stand down this year, and wants him to serve a full third term. "He is amazingly chipper," he says. "His appetite is undiminished. There's a job to do, he wants to continue to do it, he wants to fight and win a third term and he wants to serve a full third term.

"One of the ways you deal with the 'Is Tony going or staying?' question is through the manifesto. Actions speak louder than words. If the manifesto is unashamedly Blairite, then people will draw the right conclusions. He has not only written it, he is going to implement it. Manifestos tend to take a full term."

Mr Milburn concedes that Mr Blair has hit problems. "We seem to spend so much time putting out fires that we spend too little time starting them," he says. "It's policies that hold the key. We have been on the back foot for a year or more, and we really do have to get back on the front foot. A combination of Iraq, which has been very difficult, a new Conservative leader coming in, and continuing media negativity has undoubtedly shaken us. But for most governing parties, this would be a record to die for, the economy, living standards, public services."

Although the past few weeks have looked "relatively chaotic", he insists that Mr Blair has cleared the roadblocks - Europe and immigration - that would have stopped Labour fighting the general election on the economy and public services.

Six months ago, Mr Milburn urged Mr Blair to pledge a referendum on the European Union constitution, although most fellow pro-Europeans, including Mr Byers and Peter Mandelson, opposed the idea. "Europe cannot be run on an elitist basis. People are more informed, more inquiring, and are demanding a greater say." He is convinced a referendum can be won because "the British people are not daft".

Mr Milburn hopes Mr Blair has stopped trying to draw a line under Iraq. "You can't draw a line under Iraq. Iraq is there. The decision - the right one in my view - has been taken. It is very difficult, undoubtedly, and public opinion is split on it. He [Mr Blair] started out as Bambi who was interested only in the opinion polls. If any of that were true, he would not have done what he has done.

"After seven years in government, it would be surprising if politics did not become hard again. When the going gets tough, it is always extremely tempting to retreat. But the best thing is to keep going forward. We have basically a very good record.

"But if we are going change the political landscape for good - like Thatcher and Attlee - which we should be doing with a majority of this scale, we have to grasp the difficult nettles on reform."

Mr Milburn does worry about the Blair legacy. Bill Clinton, he says, was a "fantastic politician but left very little behind for his party or country". He adds: "We have got to avoid that here by having policies that are genuinely transformative."

When he resigned from the Cabinet, he got a flood of letters from people saying: "Good for you, but what about us?" So the "work-life balance" became one of the issues on which he has campaigned. Eventually, he would like the right to ask employers for flexible working arrangements extended to all workers, not just those with young children, as at present. "It is sometimes portrayed as a chattering-class issue, whereas the people who find the dilemma the sharpest are those at the bottom of the heap, not the top."

Mr Milburn started at the bottom. The son of a single mother, he did not know his father and grew up on a council estate in the mining town of Tow Law, Co Durham. "I have been incredibly lucky in my life. The things I have had in my life - a decent education, a very strong family, a home of my own - are those I want for other people."

His new mantra is for Labour to "redistribute opportunities", and he has a three-point plan for the manifesto: extending home ownership (including allowing housing association tenants to buy their homes), Scandinavian-style universal child-care provided free for the poorest families and paid for by the rest, and extending choice in public services.

Some Labour advisers say that people are confused by "choice" and just want good local services. Mr Milburn is unimpressed. "I think what people want is the choice of a good local service. It is wishful thinking to believe that we could go back to the 1940s when there was only one choice: what the state provided. The role of the state is not to control everything, it is to enable people to make choices for themselves so they can realise their own aspirations."

He believes Labour needs another Clause IV moment, under which the Government will share power with people by devolving it to the lowest possible level. "There is a terrible risk in nationalising responsibility for everything, in pretending that all politicians have to do is assume responsibility for everything and then they'll put everything right. The truth is that you can't. Having been out for so long, we wanted to change the world. We did a lot, but sometimes we over-hyped it. We need a more grown-up relationship with the public."

Would Mr Milburn be a leadership candidate when Mr Blair finally steps down? "You have got to really want that. I don't really want it. It's so far down the line in any case. It feels utterly implausible."

But there is a different answer about whether he would ever come back as a minister. "It's a very, very hard question. As I speak now, I am clear that is not what I want to do. It's not on my agenda. But you never say never about anything. I can't say there will never be a time."


Born: 27 January 1958

Educated: John Marlay school, Newcastle; Stockesley comprehensive school; Lancaster university; Newcastle university

Jobs: Co-ordinator, Trade Union Studies Information Unit, Newcastle, 1984-90;

Senior business development officer, North Tyneside Council, 1990-92

Politics: MP for Darlington since 1992; opposition spokesman on health (1995-96) and Treasury (1996-97);

Minister of State, Department of Health, 1997-98

Promoted to Cabinet as Chief Treasury Secretary 1998;

Secretary of State for Health 1999-2003;

Resigned from Cabinet, June 2003