Leading article: If there is to be a challenge, let it be in the open

David Miliband sets out to wound his leader, but dares not strike
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The Independent Online

The surprising intervention by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, this week represents another plot twist in the unfolding tragedy of Gordon Brown's premiership. Before Mr Miliband broke his silence, there was still a chance that the storm over the leadership would die down over the coming weeks as MPs disappeared off on their summer holidays. Mr Miliband has ensured that the tempests will rage well into August.

Mr Miliband's decision to talk expansively in a newspaper article about his "vision for the future", his identification of past government mistakes, and his failure to mention Gordon Brown once in the piece, have been widely interpreted in Westminister as an implicit criticism of the Prime Minister's leadership performance.

The Foreign Secretary was at pains to point out yesterday that he also used the piece to launch a critique of the Conservative Party's slogan of "Britain's broken society" and other Opposition policy ideas. And indeed there was much that was compelling in his article on this subject.

The problem is that, in the present febrile political context, those criticisms of the Conservatives have largely been ignored. And to the extent that they have made an impact, they have been seen as Mr Miliband's way of saying that he could do the job of taking the fight to the Tories better than the present occupant of Downing Street.

The most generous interpretation of Mr Miliband's overall message is that he wants to tell Labour MPs that, should the position of leader become vacant, he would be ready to stand. Considering that this was something he failed to do last year when Tony Blair resigned and Mr Brown stood unopposed as his successor, it might be seen as reasonable for him to want to put down an early marker this time, lest the party conclude that he has no real appetite for the premiership.

But some have also read into Mr Miliband's intervention a calculated attempt to increase the temperature within the Labour Party and induce a coup against Mr Brown by others. If his aim was to heap the pressure on Mr Brown, while leaving himself serenely above the fray, it seems rather naïve of the Foreign Secretary to have penned the article to appear on the day when he had to attend a press conference. Yet whatever the truth about exactly what Mr Miliband wanted to achieve, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his intervention has made a removal attempt more, rather than less, likely.

It is debatable whether a leadership contest at this stage in the electoral cycle would be of any great benefit to the Labour Party. It would certainly do little good for the country. But if a contest is inevitable, it ought to be brought about swiftly. Perhaps Mr Brown would even be best advised to provoke one himself by calling a vote of confidence.

And if there is to be a leadership challenge to Mr Brown, it should be done in the open. What we have had too much of in recent months is poisonous rumour-mongering, with MPs apparently hoping that Mr Brown will decide to resign if enough of them brief anonymously to the press. Labour MPs need to wake up to the fact that they are not doing their own futures any service by behaving in this underhand fashion. If history teaches us anything, it is that the punishment reserved for disloyal and divided parties at the ballot box tends to be even greater than that meted out to those whose time in power has run to its inevitable conclusion.

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