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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 19:42 GMT 20:42 UK
Milburn looks to leadership
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Alan Milburn said it himself - in the current, febrile atmosphere, his speech was bound to be interpreted in different ways.

Alan Milburn
Milburn, who quit the Cabinet in 2003, is seen as ultra-Blairite

What he probably meant was that it would immediately be seen as part of a leadership campaign. Too true.

Mr Milburn has not only long been seen as a possible ultra-Blairite, "stop Gordon" candidate but only days ago former Home Secretary Charles Clarke claimed he had the right prime ministerial stuff.

So if Mr Milburn ever thought his 10-year vision for the future of the Labour Party and the country would not be interpreted as a leadership speech, he probably abandoned that hope some time ago.

His address certainly looked like a pitch for the top job, with a series of radical policy ideas aimed at taking New Labour further down the road of reform.

It featured ideas ranging from a Thatcher-style asset-owning democracy, local income taxes, more individual choice in public services, to a directly-elected House of Lords and proportional representation for Westminster elections.

And at its centre was a call for redistribution of power away from the centre - Whitehall and government - to individuals and communities who might even take over budgets for running some of their own local services.

Runaway favourite

He also revealed there was more to come, declaring: "Today I only have time to give a flavour of the policy direction I believe we should be moving to.

Ton Blair and Alan Johnson
Mr Johnson (right) has been coy on his leadership ambitions so far
"In subsequent speeches and publications I intend to give more detail," he added. And that sounded to many like the start of a campaign.

Some saw the speech as a deliberate challenge to Gordon Brown to match his Blairite radicalism, but whether Mr Milburn is set to challenge the chancellor, and whether he still commands the support he once may have done, remain open questions.

He was widely criticised for his handling of last year's election campaign which saw Mr Brown allegedly swinging into action to rescue it.

And in any case - although the chancellor is clearly attempting to dispel any damaging suggestions he led last week's attempted coup against the prime minister - Mr Brown still looks the runaway favourite.

But the leadership pot is being vigorously stirred at the moment and, to all intents and purposes, the campaign to replace Tony Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, is already up and running.

Stinging attack

Mr Brown has spoken of his friendship with Mr Blair and revealed some of the personal, family side of his character which he has previously been criticised for refusing to talk about.

Gordon Brown
The chancellor, Gordon Brown, has revealed his personal side
Education Secretary Alan Johnson has also delivered a speech widely interpreted as a toe in the leadership - and certainly deputy leadership - contest.

Former maverick minister Clare Short has announced she is quitting at the next election and delivered a stinging attack on both Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

Ms Short may not command the attention she once did, thanks to her wavering over the Iraq war, but she crystallised what many on the left currently believe.

And the Blair loyalist and health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, has told the New Statesman magazine that the public should be able to vote for the next leader instead of it being left to MPs, trade union and grassroots members.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has declared he will stand as deputy, with Commons leader Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and Harriet Harman also expected to announce their intentions soon.

So, however hard the prime minister attempts to move on from the issue of his future, his party now appears locked into campaigning which will likely move into top gear at the party conference in Manchester later in the month.


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