Tony Blair, at least, knows how to keep his silence. When asked about David Miliband’s leadership prospects at his press conference on Tuesday, he repeatedly dodged all questions — knowing that so much as a supportive grunt from him would damage the Environment Secretary’s chances. But as he probably already knew, the issue had been resolved. The Prime Minister’s allies have been less discreet, and their support proved toxic. It was, in a brutal irony, the older Blairites who administered the kiss of death to Miliband’s chances of becoming the next PM.
The rumblings of the past few weeks are the closest the Labour party is going to get to a serious leadership contest. In practice, we have witnessed a mini-Cold War. As the Environment Secretary has coyly denied that he will be ‘seduced’ into standing, the Brown team has been doing its best to portray him as a Continuity Blairite puppet. Astonishingly, the Prime Minister’s allies marched straight into the Brownite trap.
David Cameron, it should not be forgotten, originally said that the idea of his leading the Conservative party was ‘for the birds’, only to race to glory in December 2005. Many in the Labour party, watching the Tory revival and fearful of the polls, hoped that Mr Miliband would follow suit. The high point of his dalliance with candidacy was the little-noticed formula he used on BBC’s Any Questions on 30 March. Invited to rule himself out yet again, he said yet again that he was not running — then added the crucial qualification that ‘nothing has happened to make me change my mind’. In other words, something might. Pressed on the matter, he said: ‘I’m not going to get into this any further … I’m not going to get into a great big Kremlinological event.’
Astute Kremlinologists will have noticed that he left himself much less wriggle room when speaking on Tuesday to the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson. ‘I’ve meant what I said,’ he declared. ‘I am not a candidate, we’ve got an excellent prime minister-in-waiting in Gordon Brown, and I’m getting on with my job as Environment Secretary.’ Not quite a William Sherman pledge (‘If drafted, I will not run; if nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve’), but a clear covering up of ankle. Mr Miliband, I think it is safe to say, will not be a contender: that, barring what Donald Rumsfeld would call an ‘unknown unknown’, really is that.
Why? To stand a chance, the Environment Secretary had to portray himself as the tribune of a new generation, offering a break from the Blair–Brown era, rather than simply the latest protagonist in an old tribal feud that has torn his party to pieces for a decade. As one minister put it to me, Mr Miliband had to show he was the alternative — not to Mr Brown, but to the sectarian division which has hamstrung Labour for a decade. It followed that his chances depended upon silence from the prominent Blairites: in private, and in public.
Instead, we had some world-class mischief from Peter Mandelson. After deciding to step down as European Commissioner (to deny Mr Brown the pleasure of sacking him) he popped up on the BBC and al-Jazeera calling for a leadership contest. He is credited with suggesting to the media that Mr Blair wants Mr Miliband to stand. The Brownites knew precisely how to respond. ‘It is amazing that, as Labour is uniting around Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson is seeking to divide us,’ one of the Chancellor’s supporters said.
Already, Mr Miliband’s position had been contaminated: the Brown team could argue that he was the chosen candidate of the Prince of Darkness. Nor were they all that dismayed to see the Sunday Telegraph report that John Reid had abandoned his own leadership ambitions, and was preparing to back Mr Miliband. Mr Reid is far from a hate-figure in the Labour party, but his private endorsement chimed perfectly with the Brown camp’s pre-emptive strategy: namely, that if Mr Miliband stood, he would be doing so as the witless proxy of an embittered older generation that feared powerlessness under Mr Brown.
Compare and contrast the more sophisticated behaviour of Mr Cameron’s team in 2005. Oliver Letwin stood well back, and allowed George Osborne to lead a campaign unblemished by the anger of the Tory Wars which had dogged the party since the fall of Thatcher. The prospect of a ‘new start’ candidate was always Mr Brown’s nightmare — hence the jokes about the Environment Secretary being ‘Milibama’. And this was one of the useful by-products of the ‘September coup’ against Mr Blair last autumn, which forced the Prime Minister to announce he would be leaving this year. The corollary was that Mr Miliband (or anyone else) was denied the time he needed to build up a reputation and (more importantly) a powerbase in the Labour party to match the Chancellor’s.
Meanwhile, Mr Brown has pursued a twin strategy: freeing his acolytes to portray Mr Miliband as a Blairite cipher, while hinting at rewards for those in the PM’s camp who cross over. Each week brings fresh concessions: Lord Adonis, I am told, will stay as schools minister to finish the City Academy programme because ‘he is too Blairite to sack’. A great cohabitation is promised.
It has suited the Brown team to portray a serious leadership battle as a form of
mutually assured destruction. Even if Mr Miliband tried to present himself as a young unity candidate, could he control his supporters? Would Mr Mandelson maintain a respectful silence? And how many more unnamed Cabinet ministers would say that Mr Brown would be an ‘effing disaster’ — or worse? We encounter a paradox: distrust and dislike of Mr Brown runs so deep, and is so explosive, that Labour simply daren’t take the lid off it.
So it is in the spirit of paralysed fear, rather than happy consensus, that Labour is preparing to grant Mr Brown the coronation he has longed for. The Chancellor said at the weekend that he would relish a challenge precisely because he knew by then that his team had done enough to ensure no such challenge would happen. They have moved on and are successfully focusing Labour MPs’ minds not on a contest but their prospective position in (or absence from) the Brown government.
The Chancellor used the pensions debate on Tuesday to remind Labour of his Tory-biffing credentials. His aides were strategically placed on Labour benches, laughing uproar-iously at his jokes. Mr Brown delighted MPs with his contemptuous treatment of Tories, even pretending not to remember their names. (‘I’ll take the tall one,’ he said, pointing to the gangly Andrew Selous.)
Among the faces cheering for him, order papers aloft, were those Blairites who have accepted the game is up and entered stages of denial. They have decided, miserably in some cases, that their only option is to convince themselves that this 56-year-old will suddenly change, start to share the power he has hoarded and to embrace the public service reforms he has stood athwart.
Had Mr Miliband been in the chamber that afternoon, he would have seen just how effective this Brown operation has been — from the autumn coup right up to the present day. Why on earth would such an ambitious man run in such circumstances?