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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 17:49 GMT
Alan Milburn: Health Secretary

By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

Alan Milburn is one of those young New Labour politicians who has soared up the ministerial ladder.

Entering the Commons at the 1992 election, he has made in to the top echelons of government in the parliamentary equivalent of a nanosecond.

Inevitably, that has sparked predictions that he is prime ministerial material.

That has been exacerbated by his friendship with Stephen Byers, with whom he shared an office in the Commons when he first became an MP - rather like two other political high-flyers: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown..


Milburn and Byers: The new Blair and Brown?

Mr Byers and Mr Milburn are often spoken of in the same breath because of their rapid rise to prominence under Tony Blair.

Until the BMW's decision to sell Rover the former's prime ministerial chances were rated higher than health secretary Mr Milburn.

How Mr Milburn handles the NHS - potentially a political poison chalice - is likely to determine his future progress.

Brought up in a north east mining village by his single mother, Mr Milburn has said he had an extremely happy childhood in a close knit community, and though he had vague interest in politics as a teenager it was at university that he became more fully motivated.

North east activist

On his return to the north east he became politically active.

He later said that he decided he wanted to be an MP during the campaign to save the Sunderland shipyards.

In those days he was very much the leftwinger, becoming involved in Newcastle's leftwing book shop Days of Hope, helping to found the trade union wing of CND and sharing a flat with two members of the International Marxist Group.

Mr Milburn became a Labour Party member in 1983.

Selected for marginal

In 1990 he put himself forward to be the Labour candidate for the marginal seat of Darlington - then held by the Conservatives - beating the former Labour MP Ossie O'Brien to the nomination.

At the 1992 election he won and in the Commons he quickly impressed Tony Blair - whom he had backed for leader in 1994 - as an effective operator.

In 1995 he became part Labour's health team under Harriet Harman.

A year later he joined Gordon Brown's shadow Treasury team where he remained until the 1997 general election, when Mr Blair put Frank Dobson in charge of health and made Mr Milburn the minister of state for NHS structures and resources.

Radical reforms

In that job he steered through reforms considered to be the most radical since the introduction of the Tory internal market 10 years earlier.

By December 1998 he was in the cabinet as chief secretary to the treasury, benefiting, along with his friend Mr Byers, from the first resignation of Peter Mandelson.

Within a year he was back at the department of health replacing his former boss, Frank Dobson, as secretary of state.

Mr Dobson had resigned to run as Labour's official candidate for mayor of London, a contest which he lost to Ken Livingstone.

Safe and loyal

In that role Mr Milburn has been a safe pair of hands, loyal to the prime minister and overseeing a massive increase in spending.

He has also been largely responsible for the government's support for private finance initiatives to build new hospitals.

When he goes home to Darlington at the weekends he devotes his time to his partner Ruth Briel and their son Joe.

Dr Briel is a psychiatrist - which Mr Milburn has said is a very good occupation for the partner of an MP.

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