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2 April 2007

Febrile rumours and canny games

Short of throwing himself at Brown's feet, it is hard to imagine what more Miliband might do to show

By Martin Bright

How easy it is to conjure up a story about splits and dissent in the ranks of the Labour Party at the moment. Even before they appeared in print, David Miliband’s thoughts for this week’s NS on the “I-can generation” were being interpreted as a political philosophy to challenge Gordon Brown’s. Every utterance from a cabinet minister is now scrutinised for signs of disloyalty to Brown, which makes these exquisitely dangerous times for the Chancellor.

The official line from the Environment Secretary is that he is “flattered” by the attention he is receiving as the youthful poster boy of the über-Blairites grouped around Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, although he cannot have made it plainer that he will not be standing. In the pages of this magazine last September, Miliband was categorical that he would not be standing as leader or deputy. His every sentence was peppered with the name “Brown” as the only credible candidate for the top job.

Miliband said the same to parliament after the Budget, but this has simply had the effect of fanning the flames of speculation. It was noted that he apparently left himself “wiggle room” by not spelling out his intention in words of one syllable. It is difficult to imagine what more he might do – short of throwing himself at the feet of the Chancellor, as an act of fealty in the style of a medieval lord paying homage to his king.

And yet Miliband’s lengthy exposition on the future of the centre left (see page 26) in Westminster’s political magazine of choice is a serious statement of intent. If it is not a bid for the highest office then it is something close to it. Odds are shortening on him becoming Brown’s chancellor or foreign secretary.

Brown knows he could stop the speculation immediately if he began offering cabinet posts around to Blairites. This point may arrive sooner than Brown would like, such is the state of fevered speculation as the local elections approach. For every real rebellion, insurgency and challenge to his coronation as leader, there are a dozen false leads, half-truths and malicious rumours.

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During one particularly intense period, I heard on good authority from one source close to Miliband and another at the Treasury that Clarke was planning to declare he would run in the Labour leadership contest. The latest rumour evaporated, however, as quickly as it surfaced. I later heard from a source in the Clarke camp (well, Charles Clarke, actually) that he was definitely saying nothing about his leadership ambitions until there was a vacancy at the top.

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Real challenge

Like Miliband, Clarke could yet become a genuine threat to Brown, unlike the other ultra-Blairites, whom one Brown aide described to me as “a bunch of apparatchiks defined by their self-indulgence and arrogance”. Despite all the talk of a “virtual” or “underground” challenge from Miliband, Clarke is the real engine of resistance to unopposed transition from Blair to Brown. The Chancellor accepts that if Clarke throws his hat into the ring when Blair stands down it is likely he will receive the 44 Labour MPs’ nominations necessary to join the contest.

Clarke remains a substantial figure who commands respect, even among the Chancellor’s supporters. Since resigning as home secretary, he has been tirelessly touring the country with an alternative political programme for Britain, based on his conviction that the constituent parts of the new Labour coalition (the old working class, party activists, Middle England, public sector professionals) have become fragmented and disconnected from the Labour government. Journalists and party activists now receive a weekly email telling of Clarke’s latest lecture or article.

Clarke is playing a canny game. Although some were surprised that he threw his lot in with Milburn’s 2020 Vision project, which many in Westminster have seen as an attempt to create a party within a party, Clarke has kept his lines of communication to the Chancellor open.

He has had two lengthy meetings with Brown to discuss his ideas. The first of these was just before the launch of the 2020 Vision website. The second was the result of the two men bumping into each other as Clarke was marshalling his ideas on the future of the health service. I am told they had a 40-minute discussion about Clarke’s deeply controversial view that the public could be charged for non-essential services.

Miliband knows he would lose his reputation as a man of his word if he launched a challenge now, although he would be the obvious candidate if Brown’s premiership was in crisis in a year’s time. Clarke, on the other hand, could paradoxically end up playing a positive role in the revival of the party. But to do that he would have to hold back on the personal spite and launch a principled campaign, based on the ideas he has outlined in the past six months. He might even end up back in the cabinet.