Strong & tough? Milky Bar Kid Miliband turns fire on Brown

David Miliband signalled his prime ministerial ambitions with a 48-hour media blitz last week. It was bold, and won him acclaim. But his critics say he has miscalculated. Jane Merrick reports
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Labour's civil war continues to rage today, as a likely leadership contender accuses David Miliband of a "narcissistic dash for personal glory". Jon Cruddas, who is being pressed by the centre-left to stand as a "Stop Miliband" candidate, describes the Foreign Secretary as "indulgent" and bent on returning the party to an out-of-date "Blairite nirvana".

Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Mr Cruddas echoes a wider backlash in the Labour Party against Mr Miliband's call for a "radical new phase" – which has been condemned as a public show of disloyalty to Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister will try to head off a leadership challenge by sending messages to the minister and his allies promising top jobs in a September reshuffle.

The IoS has learnt that there are also top-level discussions on whether Mr Brown should sideline Stephen Carter, the PR guru drafted in to professionalise the Downing Street operation, in an effort to end a bitter turf war inside the No 10 bunker.

Dismissing Mr Miliband and his Blairite backers as a "small faction", Mr Cruddas issues a rallying cry to the "mainstream" of the party. "We have not exactly covered ourselves in glory with some pretty unedifying behaviour by senior members of the party," he writes. He does not refer to Mr Miliband – or Gordon Brown – by name, but friends made it clear that his target was the Foreign Secretary.

Allies of the MP, who came third in Labour's deputy leadership contest, insisted the article is not a leadership bid. However, he is being urged by union leaders and activists to stand as the "Stop Miliband" contender if there is a contest to succeed Mr Brown.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health, is also being lined up as a centre-left contender – but he is being pressed by the Miliband camp to join their man on a "dream ticket".

The continued talk of candidates for a contest while Mr Brown is still Prime Minister underlined the sense of crisis that hangs over Downing Street. Mr Brown's aides claimed the situation was calming down yesterday after yet another turbulent week for the party, following Labour's defeat at the Glasgow East by-election. They will take consolation from the fact that Labour rules make the removal of a leader difficult, although a major resignation could force the PM's hand.

A reshuffle is likely in early September, but Mr Brown could hold open the option of waiting until next year, which will alarm MPs who want a quick resolution to Labour's dire performance in the polls and at by-elections.

There is talk in Downing Street of "binding in" Mr Miliband, to ensure he does not repeat the kind of "adventure" which saw him sign autographs and wink at the cameras in an extraordinary 48-hour blaze of publicity.

Yet rewarding Mr Miliband's disloyalty could be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of Mr Brown. Mr Miliband, dumping his usual caution, appeared to be launching a leadership bid when he wrote an article in The Guardian on Wednesday, which failed to mention the Prime Minister by name and demanded "radical" change.

Despite Downing Street insisting it was "completely relaxed" about the treatise, Mr Brown, on holiday with his family in Suffolk, was deeply angry at the intervention.

The article had followed a mini skirmish over Harriet Harman, who was forced to deny reports that she had said, "This is my time", when watching the results of the by-election roll in the previous Thursday.

What made it worse was that Ms Harman was "minding the shop" in Downing Street last week while Mr Brown was on holiday. While No 10 insisted the PM remained in charge, Mr Miliband's intervention only fuelled the sense that Mr Brown was a man adrift whose authority was ebbing away.

Later that day the Foreign Secretary appeared in shirtsleeves, with the Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, in a press conference in the Blue Room, a grand parlour in his Carlton Gardens residence. He failed to rule out a challenge, did not endorse Mr Brown, and even laughed when a glamorous Italian journalist asked Mr Frattini if his counterpart would make a good prime minister. Allies of Mr Brown raged that Mr Miliband was "self-serving" and "disloyal".

The carefully orchestrated publicity tour continued to the BBC Radio 2 studios on Thursday, when he enjoyed an hour on the flagship Jeremy Vine programme. Callers egged on Mr Miliband to "get rid of that God-awful" Prime Minister. His tone did nothing to disabuse listeners that he was setting out his stall for a leadership bid.

Outside the studios he signed autographs for waiting members of the public, inserting the word "not" into a Daily Telegraph headline that read "Labour at war" and writing his signature underneath, immediately creating a memorable image and disproving the truth of his amendment.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister tried to rein in his allies by warning them not to condemn the Foreign Secretary for fear that the civil war would spiral out of control. The hostilities continued. Geraldine Smith, a backbencher, described Mr Miliband as a "nonentity" who should be sacked. One supporter of Mr Brown ridiculed Mr Miliband, James Purnell and Andy Burnham, the three young Blairite cabinet ministers, as "assisted places" at the top table.

The Blairites hit back. Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister, described Mr Miliband's piece as a "breath of fresh air after the stale self-indulgent solipsism from Warwick".

But many MPs were baffled by the usually cautious Mr Miliband's actions. He is said to have been wounded by criticism over his decision to pull back from challenging Mr Brown a year ago. The former cabinet ministers Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn piled on the pressure, insiders said, and there was even talk of Tony Blair beginning to favour the younger, more charismatic cabinet minister Mr Purnell as a likely Blairite successor.

Mr Miliband was also stung by the shadow Chancellor George Osborne's accusation last month that he was "vacuous". "He probably felt he needed to set himself up as the heir apparent," a source said. "And whatever has happened this week, it has worked. Now everyone is talking about David Miliband as the heir apparent."

Yet despite friends of Mr Miliband insisting that his politics are to the left of Tony Blair's, he is still viewed with deep suspicion by the unions, who are essential to win over in a leadership battle. One senior union source said: "He would mark a return to the old Blair policies. That is not going to be helpful in a general election campaign. We need to find a unity candidate."

As Mr Brown faces an Olympic struggle to hold on, he will strengthen "Team GB", sources say, for a "fightback" in September, which could include a brutal realignment inside No 10.

A turf war has been raging inside No 10 for months after Stephen Carter, appointed director of strategy, and other new signings clashed with members of the Brownite "old guard". The IoS has learnt that Mr Carter is likely to be sidelined after failing to get across a political message on behalf of the Prime Minister. "He's a brilliant guy but he is not achieving everything he should have done," said one insider.

Gordon Brown's allies said if the "bottom line" of opponents was for Mr Miliband to be made chancellor, then "that can be accommodated". Yet if the bottom line is for the Prime Minister to be toppled, allies said, it would not work.

"Are they serious about carrying all of this stuff on, or is there a bottom line? We are in a game of brinkmanship. They cannot get rid of him [Brown], so the worst-case scenario is they plunge us even deeper into civil war."

A long time in politics

Sunday 27 July: As Gordon Brown begins his holiday after Labour's by-election defeat in Glasgow East, David Miliband is said to be preparing his leadership bid. Allies of Jack Straw are accused of collecting names to get rid of Brown. Ed Balls says the Cabinet is behind the PM; John Prescott calls for unity.

Monday 28: Miliband is said to be trying to persuade Alan Johnson to join him on a "dream ticket". Gordon Prentice MP calls for Brown to go. Harriet Harman minds "the shop". But No 10 insists PM is still in charge.

Tuesday 29: Harman is forced to deny she said "this is my time" when watching by-election results on TV. Ten Cabinet ministers are said to be ready to quit.

Wednesday 30: Miliband drops a bombshell with an article in 'The Guardian' calling for a "radical new phase" for Labour. He fails to mention the PM by name. A Brown ally calls Miliband "self-serving" and "disloyal", leaving Labour on the brink of civil war.

Thursday 31: Miliband appears on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and fails to dampen speculation over his intentions; he signs autographs outside the studio.

Friday 1 August: Arch-Blairite John Hutton appears to give the PM only grudging support and says Labour "can" win the next election. It emerges Miliband has cancelled a September trip to India, amid rising reshuffle talk.

Saturday 2: Ministers told to be in the country in early September for near-certain reshuffle in which Brown will reassert authority. Left-winger John McDonnell calls for a leadership election.

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