David Miliband should put an end to speculation that he is going to replace Gordon Brown. He can do so easily if he wishes. Instead of saying stories about his running for the Leadership are works of â€œfictionâ€, he should categorically rule out seeking the Prime Ministership or allowing his name to go forward. He should call in his supporters and tell them they are no friends of his if they insist on fuelling such press speculation. He should ask them to help him stamp out any idea that he is the Leader in waiting. Assuming he wishes to be loyal, his best career option is to offer full support up to a possible General Election defeat, and then run for the Leadership of the Opposition once Gordon resigns and a vacancy is called.
It is easy to do to stop speculation. I remember MPs approaching me in the 1990s when I was in the Cabinet asking me if I would stand or wanted to take over from the Prime Minister. I always stamped on such speculation at source as I had no intention of challenging an incumbent Prime Minister or doing anything in public that could make his task more difficult. No stories about me running for Leader ever appeared prior to the Leadership election of 1995 created by John Majorâ€™s resignation, although they did about other cabinet colleagues. The danger of Mr Milibandâ€™s approach is that he comes over as weak, the man who is prepared to see others wound the incumbent Prime Minister on his behalf, but who lacks the instinct to finish off a Prime Minister at bay. He is coming over as a ditherer, as he did when he seemed to look at the possibility of standing last year when there was a vacancy and then finally ruled it out. He is making his potential opponent, Gordon Brown, look positively decisive in contrast.
The second useful thing Mr Miliband could do for the country is to propose an agenda from within Cabinet that could help his party and the rest of us get out of the mess. Unfortunately from what we know of Mr Miliband he lacks such an agenda. It does not appear that he has been arguing against the Pensions Tax, the hikes in fuel duty, the vehicle Excise Tax increases and the abolition of the 10p tax band which lie at the heart of this governmentâ€™s unpopularity. I see no evidence that he has proposed better spending controls to cut waste and needless expenditure, which the public accounts require. He did not seem to have a distinctive view of how to run the financial system, handle Northern Rock, or sort out the war of the financial Regulators within the tripartite system. He does not seem to want to pull our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan more quickly than his boss.To the extent that he does have a different agenda to Gordon Brown, it comes down to wanting to be more up front about transferring power to the EU, hardly a popular cause, and maybe some more choice in public service provision which would be welcome but would be at the margins of the NHS and educational system.
When John Major held his extraordinary â€œPut Up or Shut Upâ€ Leadership election in 1995 I found myself in a different position. I had consistently argued within Cabinet that Maastricht threatened to transfer too much power to Brussels, and that we needed to rule out membership of the Euro to show that the biggest part of that treaty did not apply to us. I had consistently argued for lower spending to keep our promise on taxes, and had sent some money back to the Treasury from the budget I supervised because the department had been able to deliver good services for less than the allocation. I hoped that I could persuade the Prime Minister that others could do the same and we could turn the tables on Labourâ€™s very successful campaign against â€œTory tax increasesâ€. That was why I felt honour bound to take up the challenge when the Prime Minister said these arguments, which I had carefully kept from public view, should then be conducted in the open. There does not appear to be any real argument within the Labour Cabinet over how to manage the economy better, yet that is the cause of the present discontents.
In such circumstances Mr Miliband should keep his powder dry, and spend some more time on all those long-haul flights he has to make as Foreign Secretary thinking about what a post-Brown Labour party should stand for. Labourâ€™s tax increases are destroying the government. How could Brownâ€™s Labour critics offer something better?