Steve Richards: Miliband may well have sealed Brown's fate

The Foreign Secretary has proved he has a ruthless streak, one that can change the political landscape
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The crisis overwhelming the Labour party is intense, moving closer to a denouement and yet still shapeless. One moment, key figures appear to be on the verge of making an apocalyptic move against their leader. The next, they seem to be not so sure. The actions of David Miliband over the last 48 hours highlight the tortured ambiguities. Miliband has made a move towards the apocalyptic scenario, but not quite.

Yesterday morning, Miliband proved he has a ruthless streak, one that can change the political landscape. The article in which he focused on the future of Labour without mentioning Gordon Brown ensured that the noise around the leadership question got a lot louder. More significantly, he would have known that this would be the consequence of his intervention. For the first time, the tumultuous speculation about Labour's future had acquired deadly definition.

As the favourite to succeed Brown, Miliband had three options in the current frenzy. He could have written an article proclaiming his support for the Prime Minister. Alternatively, he could have headed off on his holidays and written nothing at all. Instead, he chose an explosive third way, writing about Labour's future without mentioning Brown.

In the article, he begins by rejecting a debate about "personalities" and ends by conveying a sense that he has the personality who could best bring about change. He writes almost as if Brown had already moved on, perhaps permanently locked away on a holiday in Southwold. The tone was modest, the themes were familiar and the future direction was only vaguely mapped out, but the contrast between substance and impact makes it a minor work of political art. Crucially, the spell was cast by the absence of any reference to Brown from the article.

The spell was partially broken yesterday afternoon when Miliband appeared at a scheduled press conference with the Italian Foreign minister. Inevitably, he was asked questions about Brown and had no choice but to supply some answers. The responses were not definitive and still give him room to act in the future, but nonetheless the airwaves were suddenly full of quotes from Miliband saying that Labour could win an election under Brown.

Miliband should have published the article on a day when he had no public appearances. Having decided to light a fuse, it would have been better to stand back and go on holiday, rather than appear hours later at a press conference standing next to a bemused Italian Foreign minister, an example of the challenging choreography as Miliband maps out his course.

Probably, there is more to this than logistical naivety. Partly, Miliband wants to make the argument against the Conservatives and for a progressive Labour party in the light of the by-election defeat. If a senior cabinet minister cannot do so, who can?

He needs also to make it clear that if there were a vacancy he is ready for it this time. Unfairly, he is accused of lacking courage because of his decision not to stand against Brown in the last leadership contest. But Miliband was right not to make a stand last time. It was the braver decision to resist the flattering pleas to make a challenge when, as Miliband's close allies have put it to me, "the party wanted to give Gordon a go". Now he is making clear he will stand. That does not mean he will be part of an assassination and it does not mean either that every time he opens his mouth he seeks solely to undermine Brown.

But the complexity of the motives has ceased to matter. Miliband's case is unheard because all that is noticed is the act of making the argument. At his press conference yesterday, he said that he had wanted to challenge the sense of fatalism around Labour. Few will have noted the point he was making. Instead, they notice that he had decided to make some points. The act gets all the attention, not what is being written or said.

This is why Brown is now in such danger. Will anyone pay attention while he is in charge? As he has admitted privately, no one is listening to him at the moment. In such circumstances, he needs the big figures below him to put the case. But they are not being heard either because their actions are seen solely in the context of the leadership speculation. When they speak, it undermines Brown rather than helps him. As one cabinet minister said to me despairingly yesterday, "If I sneeze it will be seen as an attempt to knife Gordon".

The noise around the leadership in itself is becoming the pivotal issue. Until it subsides, the Government will not be heard and is in danger of falling even further behind in the polls.

With good cause, those who are against a change of leader pose key questions: How will it be brought about and will it make any difference? Miliband highlighted the difficulties yesterday with his article in which Brown did not appear, followed by the press conference in which Brown featured in virtually every sentence.

There are other huge obstacles. When the Conservatives toppled Margaret Thatcher, only their MPs had a vote in the subsequent leadership contest. The transition was brutal, but brief. For Labour, its party members, trade unionists and MPs have a vote. The contest could last several weeks, creating a vacuum in the midst of the current bleak economic situation. There is no guarantee that at the end of the traumatic process Labour gets a better leader.

But after Miliband's intervention a bigger question arises: How can the Government move on from the current crisis? In September, if Miliband makes a comment on the quality of fish around Iceland it will be seen in the context of the leadership. If Alan Johnson visits a hospital in East Grinstead, his words will be analysed in terms of the leadership. I am told authoritatively that Jack Straw did offer to do supportive interviews after Labour's defeat in Glasgow East but was told that the slots had been filled by others. Still, his absence from the airwaves was taken as a calculated snub.

The dysfunctional operation in Number 10 only adds to the distracting din. Yesterday, an "ally" of Brown foolishly hit back at Miliband, briefing the Evening Standard that he was "disloyal... self serving and lacking judgment and maturity". That is not exactly the way of calming a story down. The former minister, Denis MacShane, told me that the briefings were far more damaging than Miliband's article and that whoever made them should be sacked. He is not alone in his concern at the Downing Street operation.

Brown is trapped in a narrative from which there is no escape. The polls will not improve greatly in the autumn and yet this period is now being seen as his defining test. Meanwhile the leadership question drowns out all other ministerial messages. Suddenly one question overwhelms all others: How to end the noise? There is a single answer. Fairly or not, and whatever the risks, only cathartic change brings the chance of calm. Miliband's intervention makes it more likely than not that Labour will have a new leader by the end of the year.