Jane Merrick: Miliband – heir to Blair the smiley Emotibot?

Why has the Foreign Secretary challenged the Prime Minister now? And why has the likeliest winner not yet decided to run?
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The Independent Online

A robot that can display "human emotions" was unveiled at the Science Museum in London last week. In difficult and awkward situations, Heart Robot becomes a ball of tension and nervous aggression. When shown kindness and affection, it relaxes and opens up.

The behaviour of this curious piece of technology triggers strong emotional responses in people it interacts with, according to the scientists behind its development.

The similarities between Heart Robot – one of a new generation of "Emotibots" – and the Prime Minister seem obvious. Gordon Brown radiated confidence during his now near-mythical honeymoon period last summer, which helped his poll rating climb. Addressing the stony faces of his Cabinet and party activists at Labour's policy forum in Warwick the day after the Glasgow East by-election, his posture was hunched, his delivery awkward. He lost the room.

Now, after the humiliation of David Miliband's open challenge to his authority last week, the shuddering rage of the Prime Minister can still be felt all the way from Southwold to Westminster. Acting on behalf of Mr Brown, No 10 supported briefings describing Mr Miliband as "disloyal" and "immature". As a result, the crisis escalated.

Mr Brown's prospects may be already dead in the minds of his Cabinet, but it is worth asking: would he be better off if he could contain his emotions? Would he have averted this grave threat to his premiership by appearing stronger and in control?

Is the answer to successful leadership of a political party to be like Tony Blair and possess a steely indifference, masked by a charismatic personality?

It is frequently said of the Prime Minister that, unlike Mr Blair, he lacks a "human side", but the paradox is that Mr Brown is more human than Emotibot, and has all the same flaws and emotional "leakage" as the rest of us. A YouGov poll on Friday found that a majority of voters now feel sorry for Mr Brown.

Mr Blair, who supposedly had a more natural touch, was the real political Emotibot. It is hard to imagine voters pitying Mr Blair. And so his protégé, David Miliband, a next-generation Emotibot, in theory has the potential to be a successful leader.

The Foreign Secretary took off his jacket last week and turned on the easy charm, even winking at the TV cameras, to send the message: "You like me. I'm a winner."

The question the Labour Party, and the wider public, are asking themselves this weekend must be: is he really the solution?

The Labour Party should not, and will not, get carried away with the Milibandwagon. MPs will use the next few weeks to take a deep breath and think seriously, not just about how to get rid of Gordon Brown, but about coming up with a credible and sensible candidate to oppose Mr Miliband in a contest.

This must not be, say Labour thinkers, a "caretaker" leader who will shepherd the party to electoral defeat, but a strong, unifying candidate who would make a decent fist of fighting the Conservatives. This is essential for the long-term future of the party.

The Foreign Secretary has a sophisticated team behind him, including Phil Collins, Tony Blair's former speechwriter and friend of James Purnell. Thanks in part to the formidable networking skills of his press adviser, Sarah Schaefer, Mr Miliband will have the backing of many in the Westminster media.

Jonathan Kestenbaum, the chief executive of innovation agency Nesta and former chief of staff to Sir Ronald Cohen, and D J Collins, the likeable former Education Department press officer who is now head of European communications at Google, will shore up business support.

Mr Miliband's tastes are also sophisticated. The day he became Foreign Secretary last year, he dined at Atami, the fashionable Japanese restaurant in Westminster, with senior Foreign Office officials.

On Thursday, during Mr Miliband's appearance on Radio 2's Jeremy Vine programme, listeners rushed to praise the Foreign Secretary and urge him to "get that God-awful man Gordon out".

But it would have been a different matter if he had turned up at the studios of Radio 5, whose listeners are more representative of both the Labour Party and the skilled working class – the voters who will decide the next election. Those posting on the Radio 5 message boards in the past few days have refused to jump on the bandwagon.

"Can't stand Milliband! The smirking assassin, I call him," said barkochba. And SomethingWonderful wrote: "If you read his piece in The Guardian it's all rhetoric and no substance... He's just Blair Mk5 or thereabouts."

The results of last year's deputy leadership contest provide the most complete and up- to-date indication of the Labour Party's views, and suggest the Foreign Secretary could not command wide support among MPs, the unions and party members.

An examination of the votes from all three sections shows the left represents about 35 per cent, the centre ground 45 per cent and the centre-right Blairite wing 20 per cent.

Among the union vote, a bloc more important than ever thanks to the party's financial difficulties, the Blairites have very little support. Their candidate was Hazel Blears, who came last by a long way. Mr Miliband is not Ms Blears, but the figures suggest that if a "Stop Miliband" candidate were to be organised, he or she could defeat the Foreign Secretary.

In the first round, Jon Cruddas came first out of all six candidates, and so should not be dismissed. But his candidacy could turn the contest into a battle of left versus right, which would be misleading.

The victor in the deputy leadership race was Harriet Harman, proving she could win again. But the candidate who came second, scoring highly among the unions, the "soft centre" of the party and the Blairite right, was Alan Johnson. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Miliband team are trying to persuade Mr Johnson to stand on a "dream ticket" with their man.

Mr Johnson, who has managed to minimise controversy over changes to the NHS in his first year as Health Secretary, remains coy about his own ambitions to be leader. He stormed out of a meeting in the West Midlands last week rather than answer the "dream ticket" question. He is playing the right game. Union leaders tell me they would not back Mr Miliband in any circumstances, even if his ticket also carried Mr Johnson's name, and are determined to ensure he is not given a free run.

This brings us back to Mr Miliband himself. Is the Emotibot malfunctioning? His decision to challenge the Prime Minister so openly is brave, but puzz-ling. Mr Miliband is being compared by critics to Michael Heseltine in his public "disloyalty" to the leader. The Foreign Secretary's adventure left the impression he was trying to have it both ways – not quite resigning or mounting a leadership bid, but not loyally backing Brown.

There is no question he knew what he was doing. After ducking out of a contest a year ago, Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and probably Tony Blair are egging him on. But why has he done this, when he knows he will be under pressure to hold a swift election, which Labour face losing? Why not wait until after that election?

Over the next few weeks, Mr Johnson, who is perhaps an Emotibot/human hybrid, will be strongly urged to ignore the risky attractions of the Primrose Hill set and prepare his own leadership bid. He would probably win.