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

Share
Related Topics

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.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

CRM Data Analyst – Part time – Permanent – Surrey – Circa £28,000 pro rata

£15000 - £16800 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Mechanical Design Engineer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A key client in the East Midlands are re...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobWe are looking ...

Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The Job...Due to continued ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: fathers looking after children, World Cup questions and Nostradamus

John Rentoul
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice