No-one in Cabinet can hold candle to PM, says Milburn

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Indy Politics

Alan Milburn, the former Secretary of State for Health, underlined his Blairite credentials yesterday as he said that the Prime Minister was "head and shoulders" above everyone in the Cabinet, including Gordon Brown.

In his first interview since he left office in June, Mr Milburn urged Tony Blair to press ahead with controversial public service reforms such as foundation hospitals and specialist schools.

The Darlington MP emphasised that Mr Blair was a prize asset that the party should still appreciate despite his "current difficulties".

"He scares the pants off our political opponents because he is head and shoulders above any other politician, in or out of the Cabinet, precisely because he combines determination and passion about implementing Labour's values with the recognition that nowadays it has got to be done in a quite different way because we live in a different world," Mr Milburn told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

His comparison of Mr Blair with his colleagues prompted one Labour backbencher and former minister to say it was clearly aimed at the Chancellor. "We all know who he meant by that: Gordon," the MP said.

Mr Brown's allies have been infuriated by accusations that the Chancellor kept a deliberately low profile during the Hutton inquiry. They also reject suggestions that Mr Brown is a "consolidator" who is opposed to policies such as foundation hospitals and tuition fees. Many point to the strong backing he gave Mr Blair at the TUC.

But with his own hands clean of the Iraq and Hutton débâcle, Mr Milburn is seen by many modernisers as an ideal successor to Mr Blair. In what seemed like a pitch to party members, he emphasised yesterday that it was the challenge of the Government to "shift the centre of gravity" to the left just as Margaret Thatcher had shifted it to the right.

Mr Milburn said it was only by pushing ahead with bold reforms that the Government would achieve genuine equality for the worst off. "Frankly, the worst thing we can do, as some are advocating now, is that we should pull back. We should be pushing forward because if we want a fairer society then, for example, we've got to redistribute choice," he said.

"Choice has always been available for those who could afford to pay, but it hasn't been available over schools and hospitals for the less well off."

Mr Milburn admitted there was "a big argument going on inside the Labour Party" about whether choice was a good thing. "In my view it is a good thing. Why? Because we live in an individualist, consumer world now, whether we like it or not," he said.

"That's why it is right ... to push ahead on these big reforms. So that choice becomes available for the many and not the few, so working-class people and people on middle incomes and not just the very rich get the opportunity of a good school, a good hospital."