On the floor of Alan Milburn’s office is a scroll signed by the Queen offering her ‘well-beloved councillor’ £2,000 to be Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It is a souvenir of his battles in the Blair–Brown days. He was appointed to this position to co-ordinate the last general election campaign, and was briefly seen as the favoured candidate to succeed Tony Blair. This lasted a few weeks: he resigned on election night and has kept an almost suspiciously low profile ever since.
‘I thought the most helpful thing would be for me to keep quiet,’ he says, gazing at Big Ben out of the window of his rooftop office. ‘But now, I feel I’ve earned my passage. Let’s face it, there have been plenty of opportunities to rock the boat during the last few months. And I haven’t.’ It is as if he wanted to prove he was not a Heseltine figure. But, having done that, he has now decided to speak in this, his first interview since Gordon Brown took over, to offer a friendly analysis of how the Prime Minister is going wrong.
‘To put it politely,’ he starts, ‘the government is not in a great position. Do I think the next election is lost? No. But we need to get ahead of the curve. There are all these concerns about getting the process right, getting the narrative right’ — referring, presumably, to the new recruits in 10 Downing Street. ‘But in the end, politics — particularly when you’ve been in government for a while — is about one big question which is currently not being answered: “What’s it all about, Alfie?”’
Alfie is, of course, a 1966 film about a morally dissolute rogue who, after several life setbacks, decides to change his ways. Mr Milburn was no doubt alluding to the film’s title song, rather than its narrative, but he does say he believes the Prime Minister has changed course.