It is now a week since Alan Milburn seriously inconvenienced his patron, Tony Blair, and threw the reshuffle into chaos by announcing that he was quitting the Cabinet to spend more time with his children. In the interval, the entire resources of Fleet Street have been deployed to uncover the truth behind this extraordinary move. Spend more time with his children! That was what Norman Fowler said when he left the Home Office, when he really ended up spending more time with a lucrative series of directorships. What on earth, we have asked ourselves, can have actuated the quiffed and plausible Milburn, a man until last week talked of as a successor to Mr Blair?
It has been suggested that he was peeved at being passed over for some other job, or that he was fed up with knocking his head against the obstructionism of Gordon Brown. Attempts have been made to infer some sexual scandal. But, as the days pass, the political world finds itself staring at the possibility that his words must be taken at their face value. The clearer it becomes that he has genuinely decided to forswear the Cabinet to 'watch his children grow up', the louder the applause has grown; from an initial incredulous ripple to a steady hymn of praise on all sides of politics. That is because, in the modern pantheon, there is no shrine more venerated than that of loving paternity. To be a downshifter, a house-husband, a man who is not too proud to stay at home and look after the little ones – that takes real manliness. Or so we are incessantly informed.
It is an article of faith in the modern Labour party, and an objective of legislation not contested by the Opposition, that all men should now have mandatory paid paternity leave. Across the land, men are now being all but forced to hang around the house, postpartum, not just for days but for weeks, when the baby is frankly too young to comprehend or benefit from their presence. Most men are likely to develop cabin fever, cooped up as they become in this world of bawling, and scented nappy sacks. And while the modern liberal mind takes delight in the notion of a father who sticks with the kiddies, it extols, conversely, the wife who goes out to work. Many of Gordon Brown's measures are directed at women, and in particular at chivvying them out of the household and into the workplace.
Columnist after columnist has therefore stood up to doff his (or usually her) cap to Mr Milburn, as an example to us all: a man who sees that his job is not everything. But is this really all there is to say on the matter?
Alan Milburn has just given up the job of secretary of state for health, a position of immense trust, which he has held at a very difficult time. He had about half a million state employees ranged beneath him, men and women who looked to him for guidance and inspiration. He was the helmsman of a weird and antiquated system, which rations health care by queue, and which flagrantly denies the elderly (to take one disadvantage) the benefit of operations which are regularly provided in other European countries. Mr Milburn was charged with rescuing this system, reforming it so as to bring in more private money, creating foundation hospitals, and raising life-expectancy in this country to levels in France and Germany. Instead of lashing himself to the mast, and continuing through the squalls, he has decided to quit. Why should this be hailed as an act of bravery and self-sacrifice, when in any other age it would have looked like selfishness?
And is it really indisputable that the presence of Milburn in the Milburn household will be an unalloyed joy for the Milburn children? Just think: the Pinteresque pauses at breakfast as the poor things try to come to terms with this unusual presence; the embarrassment as he insists on accompanying them to see their mates, or takes them to the skateboard park. No longer will his arrival be a moment pregnant with rare pleasure, when his children run to lisp their sire's return and climb his knees, as the poet puts it, the envied kiss to share. He will be there the whole time, a fixture, a banality.
It is time we as a nation ended our national obsession with fatherhood, and ceased our ridiculous pretence that it should be something ergonomically coterminous with motherhood. In deciding to opt out of the Westminster rat race, Alan Milburn should not be hailed as a hero and the new beau ideal of virility. He has put two fingers up not only to Tony Blair, but also to the entire staff of the NHS, as well as its millions of patients, who might have hoped for leadership at a difficult time. What he has done is certainly not in the interests of other men, who will now come under pressure to follow suit. And it is highly dubious that it is in the interests of his children. Whatever happened to the idea of duty?