The brute in Mr Blair

For all the gossip, speculation and misinformation, the appointment of Alan Milburn - Gordon Brown's chief rival as successor to Tony Blair - is a major blow to the Chancellor, writes John Rentoul
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The Independent Online

Alan Milburn's return to the Cabinet is as significant a moment as Hugh Gaitskell's appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer was in 1950. True, it does not mark the end of Gordon Brown's ambition to succeed Tony Blair - just as Gaitskell's elevation did not end Herbert Morrison's ambition to succeed Clement Attlee. Morrison would probably have succeeded to the leadership had Attlee resigned immediately after Labour lost office in 1951. But Attlee didn't; he stayed on until 1955, and the rest, as they say, is GCSE history.

Alan Milburn's return to the Cabinet is as significant a moment as Hugh Gaitskell's appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer was in 1950. True, it does not mark the end of Gordon Brown's ambition to succeed Tony Blair - just as Gaitskell's elevation did not end Herbert Morrison's ambition to succeed Clement Attlee. Morrison would probably have succeeded to the leadership had Attlee resigned immediately after Labour lost office in 1951. But Attlee didn't; he stayed on until 1955, and the rest, as they say, is GCSE history.

No, the real reason why Milburn's appointment is so important is because Blair wanted it so much, and Brown wanted it, well, not at all. The Prime Minister tried to persuade Milburn to take the job back in July, when Peter Mandelson's appointment as European Commissioner was announced. That helps to explain why journalists speculated at the time that Mandelson was coming back to the Cabinet. Blair intended to announce Cabinet changes and Mandelson's departure to Brussels at the same time. It was not surprising that some people put the two together. Particularly because, after Milburn had refused, the Prime Minister apparently considered putting Mandelson in charge of the election campaign, albeit from outside the Cabinet, with the prospect of his rejoining the Cabinet later.

I should at this point issue a health warning. As Blair said at his monthly news conference last week, all reshuffles are surrounded by "massive speculation". Some of that speculation is encouraged by people acting with the Prime Minister's tacit approval. But most of it is not. Some of it is fed by people who identify themselves as Blairites or Brownites, but a lot of it arises from the simple fact that politicians, officials and journalists talk to each other.

Clare Short last week complained that Blair's government is uniquely sinful in its use of anonymous briefing. This is nonsense. The normal word for it is gossip, and unless a government led by her preferred candidate, Gordon Brown, abolishes human nature, media speculation - some of it hurtful - will endure.

Some put the level of reshuffle speculation down to Blair's indecisiveness. His civil service spokesman revealed a Freudian slip of frustration when he told journalists last week, while Milburn was engaged in protracted negotiations about his terms of hire, that the reshuffle would be announced when the Prime Minister "has made up his mind". But reshuffles are intrinsically difficult to media-manage. Michael Howard tried to contrast his decisiveness with Blair's muddle by completing a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle in an afternoon. But that came unstuck the next day when Julie Kirkbride said she had not accepted the junior foreign affairs post, as reported; nor would she.

The problem is that Blair can hardly say at his news conference: "I want Alan to come back into the Cabinet to run the election campaign, but he wants a life. So if I can't persuade him, I might ask David Miliband to do it at minister of state level." Any attempt to make sense of what is going on, therefore, must be based on (preferably informed) speculation about what is passing through the Prime Minister's mind.

I am told, for example, that Blair had no intention of sacking Andrew Smith, the former Brownite secretary of state for work and pensions, who "resigned before he was pushed" on Monday. Apparently he told Smith so, and that it was in that context that he asked him to stay. Although "friends" of Smith were quoted as saying he had had a bust-up with Downing Street over incapacity benefits or pensions, and although some Blairites (like me) thought he had not done enough to tackle the hidden unemployment of long-term sickness benefits, it seems the Prime Minister took a more indulgent view.

The idea that Smith's departure was part of a prime ministerial putsch against Brown is, therefore, probably untrue. Nor did Blair intend to do down Ian McCartney, the party chairman, who reacted badly to press speculation that he would be replaced. He is a tough organiser and a New Labour loyalist in the Prescottian mould. But Blair, Brown, Prescott and McCartney himself were all agreed, I am told, that he was not suited to the role of television front man for the election campaign.

Milburn's appointment, however, most certainly was a prime ministerial putsch against Brown. The Chancellor wanted to run the election campaign - as he had in 2001 - although he did not want to be its public face. Blair had already told him he couldn't, when he refused to appoint him to the Labour National Executive last year. But giving the job to Brown's main rival for the succession is an aggressive act of brute politics.

Blair's friends are pleased that "lines have been drawn" around Brown's empire. One said that the motivation behind Milburn's appointment was simple: that Blair wants to continue to be leader of the Labour Party "in fact, as well as in name". Brown's supporters are innocent and hurt on the Chancellor's behalf. Brown seems to feel that he has been on his best behaviour since Prescott brokered a truce last November, and that he has been the victim of an unprovoked attack.

Blair affects an amused exasperation at the suggestion, persistently and authoritatively reported, that he intimated at that November meeting, and/or at a low point early this summer, that he might stand down this year. The latest variant, reported in The Times on Thursday, was that Brown himself had talked him out of announcing his resignation before the election. Oh yeah?

This is part of the Brownite mythology that sustains the Chancellor and his supporters in a state of constant grievance at being denied what is rightfully theirs. Brown certainly finds it difficult to accept his subordinate status. As one of Blair's friends commented tartly: "If Brown was PM, we know what sort of loyalty he would expect from his Chancellor." But this is not ultimately about pride; it is about power.

Brown's position remains immensely strong. As long as the economy continues to be sound, it is almost im- possible for Blair to move him. But Brown could not stop Milburn's return, because there is a job to be done and the former secretary of state for health is well qualified to do it. Blair is surprisingly self-critical of his failure to prepare a programme for the second term well in advance of the 2001 election. That led to such horrors as the pledge not to bring in tuition fees, because the issue had not been thought through. The Prime Minister feels he "lost a year" of public service reform, not because of foreign distractions, but for lack of preparation.

This time, the five-year plans have generated momentum that will run well into the third term, but there is a lot still to do in the eight months before the election. Milburn will not be a mere front man; he has serious policy work to oversee. His return to the Cabinet redresses the balance somewhat in this unbalanced government, but Milburn carries all the risks. He is more likely than the Chancellor to go down in flames.

Historical parallels are, of course, never exact. Gaitskell's elevation was, for example, as much a blow to Aneurin Bevan's ambitions as to Morrison's. But they can illuminate. Gaitskell's promotion was important because it anointed a potential successor from the next generation. Milburn is 46. Blair is 51. Brown is 53. This time we really can feel the plates moving, as Prescott put it, when he said "everyone positions themselves for it". Only this time it is Blair who is in control of the positioning.

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