When Alan Milburn returned to the Cabinet in September 2004, explicitly tasked to run Labour’s general election campaign, Gordon Brown’s advisers were amazed by the Chancellor’s composed response to such a bloody-minded act of provocation by the Prime Minister. ‘Gordon was very strategic about it,’ one aide recalls. ‘He said Milburn would fall out of favour with the parliamentary party and the activists, and that it would be a shambles.’
The Brownites are nothing if not thorough, however. So a superbly orchestrated campaign of assassination was mounted just to make sure that Mr Brown’s prophecy came true: a campaign that became known around Westminster as ‘Kill Mil’. Barely a day seemed to go by without another allegation about Mr Milburn’s supposed incompetence, sexism or arrogance appearing in the press. By the time Mr Brown had been recalled, and the election won with his help, Mr Milburn had had enough, and resigned from the Cabinet a second time. The well-tempered samurai steel of ‘Kill Mil’ had well and truly done its work.
So it was quite something to see Mr Milburn on Sunday AM brooding over his prospects as a challenger for the Labour leadership. As David Blunkett once put it, he who crosses Gordon is asking for ‘glass in his porridge’. And yet there was Mr Milburn talking like a southern governor who has already decided to run for the presidency, has $100 million in campaign pledges, but is not yet ready formally to announce his candidacy. ‘That is a really good question,’ he replied, when asked by Andrew Marr if he would challenge Mr Brown, ‘and it deserves a really, really good answer. The answer is when we have a vacancy. At the moment there isn’t a vacancy. I think personally it is highly unlikely, but that is a bridge that I think we all need to cross.