BRITAIN:BRITISH FOREIGN secretary David Miliband has failed to quash speculation about his leadership ambitions, even while insisting he is "absolutely confident" beleaguered prime minister Gordon Brown can lead Labour to victory at the next election.
Mr Miliband was seemingly obliged to clarify his position after writing an article for yesterday's Guardian newspaper offering his vision for Labour renewal while failing to mention the prime minister or to repeat the now-ritual ministerial mantra that Mr Brown is "the best man" to take Britain through troubled economic times.
"Miliband positions himself for leadership" was the predictable headline reaction to the article, with its implicit criticism of Mr Brown's leadership style coupled with a call for a return to the 'New Labour' way of "offering real change, not just in policy but in the way we do our politics."
Although unimpressed by Mr Miliband's policy prospectus, left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn reflected the widespread suspicion that this was "a declaration that he (Miliband) is ready, willing and able to take over" should Labour plotters succeed in their efforts to force Mr Brown to stand down later this year.
At a press conference with Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini, Mr Miliband denied he was planning a leadership bid, insisting: "I'm not campaigning for anything other than a successful Labour government."
Mr Miliband repeated he had grown concerned at the mood of "fatalism" gripping parts of the Labour Party in the aftermath of the Glasgow East byelection defeat, and asserted his challenge was to Conservative leader David Cameron.
Asked why his article had not explicitly endorsed Mr Brown's leadership, he replied because its' starting point had been that Labour didn't need "a summer of introspection" and that the debate should be about issues and values rather than personalities.
Confirming his view that the prime minister had the same values and vision, the foreign secretary said: "Gordon will lead us forward and the rest of us have a contribution to make."
However, Mr Miliband ducked an invitation to agree that "Labour would be mad" to ditch the prime minister ahead of the general election, saying: "Labour doesn't do mad."And while some commentators detected a slight "rowing back" on his position, others thought Mr Miliband's intervention would be regarded in Downing Street as an "act of disloyalty" which could only further undermine Mr Brown's already weakened authority.
Blairite loyalists pointed-up the absence of any denial of reports that cabinet minister James Purnell has promised Mr Miliband he would not stand against him should a leadership vacancy arise.
Whitehall insiders also noted that the experienced Mr Miliband could easily have avoided calling yesterday's press conference if his intention had been to still the clamour about the leadership.
Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan agreed that Mr Miliband's intervention had probably been "a piece of positioning", while telling the BBC: "I don't think that means he's going to go over the top and challenge Gordon Brown in the autumn. That would be suicide."
Mr Morgan also warned potential plotters that deposing the prime minister would mean an immediate general election - a prospect he described as "madness".
Meanwhile, Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman reiterated her case that she was not planning a leadership bid, saying: "When a woman says no, she means no."