Miliband on manoeuvres?

Fortunately for Labour, the Foreign Secretary does not feel constrained. Expect more domestic interv

Is David Miliband the first cabinet minister to be barred from speaking about domestic politics? Even before he delivered the John Smith Memorial Lecture on 6 July, it was being said the knives were out among his opponents inside the Labour Party.

Some were worried about a repeat of last summer’s leadership speculation, following the publication of his Guardian article in which he wrote of his “restlessness for change”. Technically, any leadership change must still be signed off by conference, so the period before then is seen as especially dangerous.

“Why destabilise the situation now, just two months before the party conference?” a minister was reported to have said of Miliband. “When did he have time to write this stuff [the lecture]?” a senior MP wondered. “We’ve got an Iran crisis, an Anglo-French summit and the G8 this week.”

Besides being paranoid (Miliband is loyal to Gordon Brown), this is ahistorical. And anyway, to describe him with the now-meaningless label “Blairite” is as inaccurate as it is convenient to his opponents: he is much more complex a Labour figure than that.

Certainly Douglas Hurd – and, for that matter, Geoffrey Howe – very regularly opined on the British scene from the perch at the top of the Foreign Office. It is no more wrong for the Foreign Secretary to speak out than for the Chancellor or Home Secretary to do so, and it would be strange if a man who has for decades thought about the positioning of the left felt constrained at this crucial time for Labour.

Fortunately for the party, he doesn’t. Miliband will not let up; there will be more of this to come. Speaking on the telephone from Heathrow on Monday night, he told me that “we all have a responsibility to help co-ordinate ideas”. The most “dangerous” opposition attack, he said, “is that you haven’t got any ideas”. Evidently, he can chew gum and walk at the same time. “Yes, I’m at the airport about to go to Pakistan, but there is an amazing thing about our politics, which is that as well as having our departments we are also MPs, and members of our party.”

And in what is being interpreted as an appeal to the left of the party, Miliband talked up Labour’s three million affiliated trade unionists in his speech. “It is a great strength of our democracy that unions choose to have a political fund, and that over three million trade unionists choose to pay it; it is a direct link to real life,” he said. “[But] we don’t make the most of it, either to listen or to lead; I am as guilty as anyone.”

Although seen by some as political positioning, this is also practical. Miliband is known to have been deeply impressed by Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, which tapped in to financial support from ordinary members of the public as well as party members. And he has been alarmed by the Conservatives’ “friends” system, in which any sympathiser can donate as little as £1.

John Prescott, for one, thinks it “daft” to stop Miliband from venturing on to the British scene. “I want them all to speak out,” he said. “What, because he’s foreign minister, he shouldn’t? Listen, I think every minister should be talking. I’m not going to knock a guy just because he’s foreign minister.

“I asked David for a copy of the speech and he sent it: I’ve read it and it’s a good speech.”

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John Prescott was also enlivened by Andrew Adonis’s revision of New Labour thinking on Tory rail privatisation in the 1990s (see interview on page 16). Adonis now says that Labour should have opposed the move.

“I suspect that if we could rerun the past, Tony Blair would take the same view,” he told me. “I think I detect that’s probably John Prescott’s view.” It certainly is, and was at the time, when Prescott fought within the shadow cabinet to force Labour to oppose the move. His ally in this was Brian Wilson, then the shadow transport minister. Arguing against them were one Gordon Brown, and Clare Short, who had sacrificed ideology for personal loyalty to Brown. In the end, Blair came down decisively in Brown’s favour.

“I was surprised by Clare’s position,” Prescott says. “But we were all basically against privatisation. The question was what to put into the manifesto, and what you did after the election. I was in favour of taking back the rail companies when their licences ran out. I had told the companies there would be no compensation based on the old rules.” Though he is entitled to feel vindicated, Prescott won’t criticise Brown. “But all of a sudden,” he says, “a lot of people seem to think ‘nationalisation’ is not such a bad word.”

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As Jack Straw rushed to the Commons last week to push through a bill regulating MPs’ behaviour, he bumped into a gaggle of schoolgirls led by one Sinead Kelly. When her mother, Ruth, introduced Straw, he was apologetic: “I’m sorry, but if I don’t get into the Chamber in the next two minutes, this bill will fall.” Denis MacShane and Iain Duncan Smith, Labour and Tory respectively, suddenly appeared. “Meet the future!” they chirped. “Stay a while!”

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Lord Adonis’s statement in the House of Lords on the nationalisation of the East Coast main line came straight after Peter Mandelson announced that market conditions were delaying the part-privatisation of the Post Office. The irony – of one moderniser shelving privatisation while another moved to nationalise – was not lost on either of them. “My grandfather would be proud of you,” whispered the Business Secretary. He was referring to Herbert Morrison, who was minister for transport in the second Ramsay MacDonald government and who said, on introducing his London Passenger Transport Act in 1931: “Real co-ordination means a single consolidated ownership.”

Incidentally, if Lord Mandelson is indeed to become prime minister, Vernon Bogdanor, the Oxford professor of government, confirms that he will have to do so from the Upper House unless there is a change in the law.

“I am not sure that a life peerage can in fact be renounced, unlike a hereditary peerage. In that case, a special act of parliament would be needed,” he says. On the other hand, Mandelson “could not remain as PM in the Lords since MPs would want to question him. Like [Alec Douglas] Home in 1963, he would have to be returned to the Commons in a by-election.” That clears that up.

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Scots won’t let Johnnie go

News that Diageo is to close the Johnnie Walker plant at Kilmarnock in 2011 has caused outrage – and not just among the 700 workers who will lose their jobs. Scottish politicians have joined Kilmarnock Football Club in condemning the move.

Now the Guardian journalist Stephen Khan, who is from the town, has started a Facebook group called “Without Kilmarnock, it isn’t Johnnie Walker”.

“Imagine, if you can, Jack Daniels dropping all links with Lynchburg, Tennessee,” says an outraged Khan. “Consider cognac ripped from the banks of the Charente and dumped in industrial sites outside Paris. Or how about Veuve Clicquot opting to abandon the Champagne region? You can’t, can you? Because it wouldn’t happen. Not only would such crass behaviour wreck local communities, but it would also be commercial suicide, because premium drinks brands cannot exist independently of their places of origin.

“Wherever I’ve been, when people have asked me where in Scotland I’m from, I’ve been able to point to the label on the famous square bottle.”