The last mission of Blair's Ultras

When, a few weeks ago, I chalked up 10 years of writing this column, I received a light-hearted message of congratulations from a certain well-known Newcastle city councillor.

When, a few weeks ago, I chalked up 10 years of writing this column, I received a light-hearted message of congratulations from a certain well-known Newcastle city councillor.

"Ten years of Linford's column - and every single one of them has been about the Blair-Brown relationship!" he wrote.

Well, maybe that was a trifle unfair of him. I reckon it's every other one, at the very most.

But in my own defence, it has often been hard not to write about Messrs Blair and Brown, such is the extent to which their relationship has dominated British politics over the past decade.

It still does. Mr Blair has finally announced his decision to stand down this summer, and Mr Brown is still moreorless universally expected to succeed him.

But it is becoming clearer by the day that the Prime Minister still entertains hopes of being able to hang on long enough to block his old rival - with the help of some of his friends in the North.

A couple of weeks ago, I devoted this column to the issue of whether Environment Secretary David Miliband might eventually be persuaded to throw his hat into the ring.

He insists not. But undeterred, Darlington MP Alan Milburn this week launched a bid to start a "debate" over Labour's future direction that seems designed to propel Mr Miliband into the race.

Of course, Mr Milburn denies that his new "2020 Vision" website launched with former Home Secretary Charles Clarke on Wednesday is any such thing.

But the continuous smirk on Mr Milburn's face as he issued his denials seemed to give the game away.

To paraphrase one commentator present at the launch: "It was a look that said: `You know the score, I know the score, but we have to at least pretend this is all about policy.'"

Well, it isn't. It's a clever piece of realpolitik designed to flush out Mr Brown's own policy platform so that both it - and him - can then be challenged.

There are two very good reasons why the Chancellor has so far said little openly about what he plans to do, and more importantly what he plans to change, if and when he takes over.

Firstly, he does not want to give the cross-dressing Tory leader David Cameron the slightest opportunity to steal his clothes.

But secondly and more problematically, he also knows that the minute he starts setting out a programme for government that in any way differentiates him from Mr Blair, it will be construed as a "split."

That will then give the uber-Blairites the excuse they have long been looking for to run a candidate against Brown to protect their hero's legacy.

At first sight, Messrs Milburn and Clarke would appear to have suffered a rebuff from their fellow Labour MPs, with only 13 of them turning up to the launch.

Furthermore, one of them was the Newcastle East MP Nick Brown, Gordon Brown's vicar-on-earth and putative campaign manager, who was simply there to see what the other side were up to.

But some estimates suggest that up to half of Labour MPs are not convinced by Mr Brown and would be prepared to look at another contender if one emerged.

Mr Milburn's initiative may well come to nothing. But if the polls continue to go badly for Mr Brown, and Labour MPs become jittery, then literally anything might happen.

Furthermore, if the contest opens out into a Cabinet-level challenge from the likes of Mr Miliband or John Reid, there is no reason it couldn't go wider.

Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn and Peter Hain could all then come back into the reckoning, or even Jack Straw as a "unity candidate."

Then there is John Denham, the only MP to resign over the Iraq War who is still both alive and in the Labour Party.

Former minister Peter Kilfoyle made the point this week that if there is to be a challenge to Mr Brown, it should come from someone like Mr Denham on the sensible left, rather than from the ultra-Blarite right.

Can any of this be taken seriously? Is it just the media trying to inject some interest into a contest that has long been a foregone conclusion?

Well, yes and no. There is no doubt that some national newspapers - including at least two Labour-supporting ones - are seeking to encourage a contest.

But they are not operating in some sort of vacuum. The reason they are able to write such material is because Labour MPs are prepared to voice private doubts about Mr Brown.

There is a view abroad in the party - which I happen not to share - that the Chancellor will lead Labour to electoral catastrophe. If that view continues to gain ground, it will be lethal to Mr Brown's chances.

In the final analysis, if Mr Milburn cannot entice Mr Miliband into the race, might he be forced to stand himself?

His close friend and fellow North East MP Stephen Byers is explicit about wanting a challenge. "We are not the Royal Family. We don't do coronations in the Labour Party," he said this week.

But while a Milburn challenge would certainly be entertaining - not least from a North-East perspective - it would be a mission doomed to failure.

Even if he could somehow persuade MPs to overlook his two Cabinet resignations, he is hated by the unions for his marketisation reforms while in the job of health secretary between 1999 and 2003.

My guess is that Mr Brown would welcome a Milburn candidacy, which would pose no more threat to him than those of Michael Meacher and John McDonnell.

It would then allow the Chancellor to position himself in the dead centre of the party between the new right and the old left, much as Jim Callaghan did in 1976.

The former health secretary is reported to have told friends he would be prepared to embark on a "kamikaze mission," but it would surely only be as a last resort.

For now, all eyes will continue to point in the direction of his Right Honourable friend, the Member for South Shields.

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