Miliband-Milburn alliance dismissed as 'work of fiction'

 

UK:A 'Telegraph' 'exclusive', though denied, further destabilises Gordon Brown's government, writes Frank Millar

ATTEMPTS TO destabilise Gordon Brown's leadership continued yesterday - this time with the claim that former health secretary Alan Milburn had been lined-up to be chancellor should foreign secretary David Miliband succeed Mr Brown as prime minister.

Mr Milburn dismissed the "exclusive" Daily Telegraphreport as "complete b*******", while Mr Miliband's office described it as "a work of fiction".

Even in its current febrile state, both denials would have been widely recognised and accepted inside the Labour Party - where even those hoping for a Miliband succession would question the wisdom of too close an alliance between "the young pretender" and the "über-Blairite" Milburn, who is detested among trade unionists and MPs on the left.

"It is a complete work of fiction. There is no leadership challenge," assured a spokesman for the foreign secretary, who left for a Spanish holiday on Saturday after being seen to position himself as the leading contender should Labour plotters manage to force a contest, or Mr Brown from office in an autumn/winter or spring/summer coup.

"I told the paper it was complete b******* and I am amazed they have run it," insisted Mr Milburn, in response to the claim of "private talks" and his reported assurance that he would be "happy to accept the treasury" under a Miliband premiership.

However, Downing Street suspicions of some sort of a spoiling exercise ahead of the expected Brown re-launch by way of a cabinet re-shuffle in September would have been instantly revived when Mr Milburn also indicated he would refuse a job if offered one by Mr Brown.

There has been speculation in recent weeks that Mr Brown might be tempted to invite Mr Milburn and other leading figures from the Blair era to return to government in an attempt to widen its appeal and restore its authority ahead of Labour's general election bid for a fourth term. However, the London Evening Standardquoted Mr Milburn telling "friends" he would be "mad" to accept a post in a re-shuffled Brown cabinet.

Mr Milburn's apparent disavowal of any interest in a return to cabinet under Mr Brown will also underline the prime minister's dilemma in deciding what to do about Mr Miliband.

Some loyalists have endorsed backbench calls for the foreign secretary's dismissal, while other reports suggest he might be tempted to "bind" Mr Miliband in by making him chancellor.

The latest "poll of polls", meanwhile, suggests Mr Brown would lose his current chancellor, home secretary and half his MPs if he were to call a general election. The poll, compiled for the Independentby John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, says Conservative leader David Cameron would form a government with a Commons majority of 132.

While cabinet loyalists maintain Mr Brown is the best placed to lead Britain through difficult economic times, Prof Curtice said these claims are not believed by voters: "Labour's reputation for economic competence has been torn to shreds."