How Miliband started the race for No 10

The Foreign Secretary's article saying that Labour could win the next election provoked a furore. It made no mention of Gordon Brown. The pretender beamed for the cameras – but was it the smile of an assassin?
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The smile said it all. At One Carlton Gardens, the Foreign Secretary's 18th century residence near St James's Park, David Miliband emerged in white shirt, red tie and no jacket to face the nation's media yesterday afternoon – a man in the middle of a media storm whose voice and mannerisms looked oddly familiar.

He had the same hand gestures that Tony Blair used, and the same way of dealing with difficult questions, by going pleasantly but obstinately off at a tangent. He even ended the press conference with a Blair-like joke.

An Italian journalist had asked a two-part question, about poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and whether the Italian Foreign Minister, standing at the Foreign Secretary's side, thought that Mr Miliband would make a good prime minister. Mr Miliband rattled off an answer to the first part, then remarked: "I'll leave the room before you answer the other question."

It was a light touch to end one of the most testing public appearances that Mr Miliband has ever made. That morning, he had set off a tornado of political speculation with a newspaper article that exhorted the Labour Party not to be gloomy and to concentrate on winning the next general election – something the Foreign Secretary seems to be genuinely convinced is still possible.

It was not what the article said that made it so sensational; it was the omission of two words that cannot realistically be avoided in any discussion of Labour's future. They were the words "Gordon" and "Brown". Their absence was not a mistake. The article was drafted with meticulous care, with input from several experienced advisers, including Peter Hyman, a former Downing Street aide, and a former journalist for The Independent, Sarah Schaefer.

It is inconceivable that, between them, they could have forgotten that there is a Prime Minister, or failed to see the implied insult in leaving him out of an article about the future of the Labour Party. People in the Brown camp picked up the inference quickly enough. "There is no way that this was Miliband being clumsy," said one. "Miliband doesn't do clumsy. It was a calculated act."

Another said: "David Miliband has shown himself to be not only disloyal but also self-serving. People at least thought he was a serious figure and a grown-up politician but, by allowing his head to be turned by this leadership nonsense, he has revealed a surprising lack of judgement and maturity."

Though the Prime Minister's office was told that the article had been written, Gordon Brown was not forewarned about what it would say. And why should he have been, one of Mr Miliband's allies said yesterday, adding with no hint of irony: "He's on holiday. He should be building sandcastles."

Later, in front of the nation's media, Mr Miliband did eventually pay a mild tribute to his boss, and will no doubt do it again when interviewed today by Jeremy Vine. "Gordon Brown is the leader of the Labour Party and he will lead us forward to address the big issues," he said. Later, he added: "Can Gordon lead us into the next election and win? Yes, I'm absolutely certain about that."

He also insisted that his newspaper article was not about who should lead the Labour Party – yet when he was directly invited to rule out the possibility that he would challenge Gordon Brown, he ducked the question.

Despite 11 years at the heart of government, David Miliband has been spared much of the rough side of politics. Everyone who knows him acknowledges that he has the intellect to be prime minister. His nickname in Tony Blair's circle was "Brain", because he is one of the cleverest and most cerebral figures in politics.

On the huge ornate desk in his vast room on the Foreign Office there rests a great pile of books on political philosophy which, he complains, he can never find time to read.

But the question that hangs over Mr Miliband is whether he has the strength of will and the common touch that a prime minister needs. Or, as they would say in Spain, where the Miliband family is heading off on holiday on Saturday, has he got cojones?

This is a man who has risen by the "primrose path". His father, Ralph Miliband, was one the great left-wing intellectuals of his day. David entered 10 Downing Street in May 1997 as Tony Blair's policy adviser, a role that kept him a step away from the grim political warfare into which other advisers were plunged. In 2001, he was parachuted into the safe Labour seat of South Shields, after which his link to Tony Blair assured him a quick and easy ascent up the ministerial ladder.

It is only since Tony Blair bowed out that Mr Miliband has really been embroiled in roughhouse politics. Gordon Brown may have felt compelled to promote him in June 2007 to the Foreign Secretary's job but that did not mean he was going to do it with good grace. Four months earlier, Mr Miliband had said on BBC's Question Time : "I predict that when I come back on this programme in six months' time or a year, people will be saying, 'Wouldn't it be great to have that Blair back because we can't stand that Gordon Brown?'"

That forecast may have been true, but it was not calculated to please the brooding new occupant of 10 Downing Street, who does not forget. Almost as soon as Mr Miliband had entered the Foreign Office, his friends were worried that Mr Brown would use the Prime Minister's office to make his youngish foreign secretary look like an amateur.

Mr Miliband's first big foreign policy speech was delivered in Bruges in November. The original version, leaked to friendly journalists, would have marked a shift in British policy in favour of the kind of integrated European Union favoured by the French and Germans. But between the drafting and the delivery, some of the most pro-EU passages were struck out by Gordon Brown, whose staff then briefed the press on how the Prime Minister had asserted his authority. Downing Street insisted they had not deliberately set out to humiliate Mr Miliband, but the suspicion lingered that the old Blair-Brown feud was being revived, with Mr Blair's favoured adviser as the new target.

Aside from thoese personal tensions, there is the much bigger question of how Britain is to be governed, with the threat of recession looming, and whether the Labour Party is capable of regaining the confidence the public once had in it. As a former political adviser, Mr Miliband has the kind of mind that is constantly turning over the big questions, and wondering what others have to say about it.

It is not unusual for Labour politicians to be irritated by what they read in the Daily Mail but, just over a week ago, Miliband picked up the newspaper honestly expecting to read something interesting. There was an article in by George Osborne, the Conservative shadow Chancellor, who is in some ways a mirror image of Mr Miliband – an immensely clever political intellectual who has crossed over from being a political adviser to being a front-rank politician.

Mr Miliband read the article expecting to find substance, something to set off a good political argument. Instead, he came upon three promises to cut taxes, with no indication of how the Tories would fill the resulting hole in public finances, rounded off with that vacuous claim that the Tories "will fix the roof when the sun is shining".

Why, Miliband demanded in exasperation, are they allowed to get away with it? Like so much of what the Conservatives say, the article was wide open to attack – but it appeared that a shattered, demoralised introspective Labour Party was incapable even of reacting. And if the mood was bad at that start of the week, by Friday it had reached rock bottom, after Labour's third-safest Scottish seat, Glasgow East, had fallen in a 22 per cent swing to the SNP.

That weekend, Mr Miliband joined dozens of the Labour faithful for the National Policy Forum, which was held at Warwick University, where they listened to Gordon Brown give a speech that told them about the 100 new airports in China, the million new cars in India, globalisation, environmental technology, and the manufacture of iPods. The Labour Party had just endured one of the worst by-election defeats in its history, gloom and pessimism filled the hall, and the Prime Minister fed them statistics.

It was abundantly clear that all the rumbling in the undergrowth that has been weakening Mr Brown and the Government for months was going to get worse. In private, Labour MPs have been talking incessantly about whether to soldier on under Mr Brown's wounded leadership or try to get rid of him, and if so how. Over the weekend, one of the braver ones, Gordon Prentice, put his head over the parapet and said publicly that Gordon Brown should go.

Harriet Harman put on a good performance in Warwick, which reminded the party faithful why they voted for her in last year's deputy leadership election. Yesterday, she flatly denied a report that, after the Glasgow East result came through, she had exclaimed "this is my moment". She also asserted that she is not going to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership – which of course does not rule her out of a contest should Mr Brown resign.

When the party leader is in as serious trouble as Mr Brown now is, it is also a testing crisis for potential successors. Sometimes, the sensible thing is to keep quiet, do nothing and wait, as Michael Howard did when Iain Duncan Smith's stewardship of the Conservative Party fell apart in 2004. But in politics, those who wait will often find that their turn does not come, because someone else nipped in first. Mr Brown has always regretted standing aside for Mr Blair in 1994. Michael Portillo's political career never really recovered from his failure to stand for the party leadership against John Major in 1995.

Some of the people on the Blairite wing of the Labour Party believe that Mr Miliband should have given Gordon Brown a run for his money last year, even at the risk of coming a poor second. Had he hung back this year, while others were manoeuvring, he might have raised permanent doubts about whether he had the steely ambition needed to lead the party.

Now he can go on holiday feeling that he has laid those doubts to rest. "Preparing for a possible leadership campaign is not the same as running one, or plotting," one of his allies said. "But if it happens, he will be ready."

That shirt-sleeved, smiling, 43-year-old David Miliband was eerily reminiscent of the 40-something Tony Blair facing the press in the summer of 1994, after the sudden death of a Labour leader. This time, the leader is not actually dead; but a great many people think that his is entering its terminal phase and that when he returns from Suffolk there will be a visit from a delegation in sombre suits to tell him his time is up. Yesterday's events can only strengthen their resolve. That Miliband smile looks nice, but it was the smile of an assassin.

Team Miliband

Phil Collins

Tony Blair's former speech writer Phil Collins is a likely backer. He once said "a monkey with a typewriter" could write better speeches than Mr Brown. In May, he said Mr Brown's premiership was a "tragedy" fraught with "strategic errors and political mishaps".

Sarah Schaefer

Mr Miliband's special adviser is his closest aide, who acts as his voice – and "eyes and ears" – with journalists. She has separated from Matthew D'Ancona, the editor of the conservative The Spectator, which recently seemed to switch allegiance from Mr Miliband to James Purnell.

Peter Hyman

Peter Hyman is a teacher in an inner-city London comprehensive. He worked for Tony Blair for ten years as a speechwriter and strategist. He is close to Mr Miliband and is said to be a "key man" in his inner circle. Some believe he may have helped draft The Guardian article.

James Purnell

The 38-year-old Work and Pensions Secretary has crucially told Mr Miliband he will not stand against him, as The Independent revealed on Saturday. Seen as highlycapable and intelligent if slightly cocky, this tough-talking minister is regarded as a future leader by Blairites.

Andy Burnham

The 38-year-oldCulture Secretary has recently emerged as a potential future leader – not this time but next – in the eyes of some Blairites. But the personable former flatmate of James Purnell must see off the charge that he is a lightweight. In the meantime, he's backing Mr Miliband.

Alan Milburn

The 50-year-old arch-Blairite former minister has remained largely in the shadows but is widely expected to be a key backer of a Miliband candidacy. Along with Peter Mandelson and (some say) Tony Blair privately, Mr Milburn was urging Mr Miliband to stand against Gordon Brown last year.

Miliband's words

'In the aftermath of Labour's third successive defeat at the 1959 election, a famous pamphlet asked the question: "Must Labour lose?" Today, the temptation is similar fatalism. We must not yield.'

'The odds are against us, no question. But I still believe we can win the next election. I agree with Jack Straw that we don't need a summer of introspection.'

'With hindsight, we should have got on with reforming the NHS sooner. We needed better planning for how to win the peace in Iraq, not just win the war. We should have devolved more power away from Whitehall and Westminster. We needed a clearer drive towards becoming a low-carbon, energy-efficient economy, not just to tackle climate change but to cut energy bills.'

'Every member of the Labour Party carries with them a simple guiding mission on the membership card: to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few. When debating public service reform, tax policy or constitutional changes, we apply those values to the latest challenges.'

'If people and business are to take responsibility, you need government to act as a catalyst. High-polluting products will not disappear unless government regulates. New nuclear power stations need planning policy to facilitate them. And if we act through the European Union we green the largest single market in the world.'

'New Labour won three elections by offering real change... Let's stop feeling sorry for ourselves and find the confidence to make our case afresh.'