Why minister apologised to female official over gossip

Andy McSmith reports on the red faces caused by the Westminster rumour mill
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Indy Politics

One of Alan Milburn's last tasks before he left office was to apologise to a senior civil servant innocently caught up in the whirlwind of speculation which followed his unexpected resignation.

No sooner had he declared that he was leaving for the sake of his young family than the Whitehall gossip mill began churning out alternative explanations for an event no one had predicted. One rumour appears to have been based on nothing more than the observation that a senior executive in the Department of Health is female and an inability to accept that she was appointed to her high post because she is good at her job.

The loose talk was fuelled by the tabloid press, and the publicist Max Clifford has hinted that he knows something. The Labour MP Diane Abbott declared on television that she did not believe the reason Mr Milburn gave for his resignation, and forecast the truth would emerge in a Sunday newspaper.

The departing Health Secretary called the female executive in at the end of his last day in office for what must have been an excruciatingly awkward conversation. He told her that, though he had anticipated there would be speculation about his departure, it had never occurred to him that someone else would be dragged into it

The Westminster village is full of people who would sooner abandon their spouses and neglect their children than miss an opportunity to play the political game. In that environment, it seems unbelievable that someone could miss his young sons so much that hearing little Joe playing the trumpet in the school concert could mean more to him than being tipped as a future Prime Minister.

However, Mr Milburn's political adviser, Darren Murphy, said: "There is no hidden explanation. He was increasingly feeling that he could not justify the amount of time he was spending away from his sons. At some level, this may have been because his own father wasn't there for him."

Many of the leading figures in Tony Blair's circle, including the Prime Minister himself, grew up with parents or other close relatives in the public eye. They had an early warning of what to expect if they chose a political career.

But Mr Milburn could never claim - as Peter Mandelson once did - that he was "born to be a minister". Even now, he does not know who his biological father was. He had no father figure until he was in his teens, when his mother married. This development brought him an adult role model, got him out of a school with a reputation as the worst comprehensive on Tyneside in the late 1970s, and eventually got him into university. Without a stepfather, university might have been out of reach.

Soon after graduation, he caused a minor stir in the left-wing circles he frequented on Tyneside, when he and his girlfriend, Mo O'Toole, announced at the local radical bookshop, Days of Hope, that they were getting married.

This was odd because, in that milieu, it was normal to cohabit, but to marry could be seen as a deliberate breach of the accepted behaviour - the more so because this was soon after the marriage of Charles and Diana, of which we all disapproved. I say "we" because I was one of the founders of Days of Hope. It had a stock of "Stuff the Wedding" badges from the royal event, one of which - I am slightly ashamed to say - I wore to the Milburn wedding.

In those days, he had no obvious ambitions to make money or be important. Many who knew the couple assumed Ms O'Toole - who is now an MEP - would be the public figure. Alan did once tell a friend he really wanted to be general secretary of a middle-sized trade union one day - but that was like one of those conversations in which people confess they want to be rock star or win the lottery. Later, he applied to be northern regional organiser of the Labour Party, and was mortified not to get the post.

Then, around his 30th birthday, he went through one of those crises in which people ask themselves what they want to make of their lives. The upside was that he secured himself the Labour nomination for the winnable Tory seat of Darlington. The downside was a ghastly break-up with Ms O'Toole, which was his fault, not hers. It was several years before they were back on friendly terms. He later formed a lasting relationship with Dr Ruth Briel. They have two sons, Joe and Danny, but did not marry.

Until last week, he was seriously seen as a future Prime Minister. On the other hand, he had seen what happened to his mate, Stephen Byers, and knew his own career might be shredded and destroyed by something unforeseen. Given what he had been through, the choice between the transient unpredictability of big-time politics and the stability and certainty of fatherhood was obvious.