POLITICS

Published: 16/09/2004, Volume II4, No. 5923 Page 19

In a week of high political drama at Westminster it came as no surprise that the new chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Alan Milburn made the front page of his local paper, The Darlington, Aycliffe and Sedgefield Advertiser.Yes, indeed.

'Bring back bus service, says MP' screamed the headline, so an amused reader rang to say.

It is a good reminder that for most people, high politics is just that, something they view from a distance with varying degrees of interest, like an England football match.Mostly they get on with busy lives.

So what happened last week?

How much time did health secretary John Reid, who has a very busy working life of his own, take out to get involved in the Cabinet reshuffle?

And how will it affect the NHS? Potentially it will resonate significantly. So here goes.

A great deal of what has been reported in the past few days has been guff. The key to understanding the situation is that both Blairites and Brownites, mainly MPs and officials rather than the principals, have a mirror image view, a paranoid one, of the other side's conduct.

'Look how they're leaking against us, ' each side mutters angrily down the phone.When you get to my age - almost 59, older than most MPs except for John Prescott and Margaret Beckett - and have acquired insights through raising sons, I can tell them: 'It is not true.

Stop it, boys.'

Let me give you an example. A Brownite complained to me that Darren Murphy, who now works at Number 10 but used to be Mr Milburn's special adviser, had been briefing against the chancellor.He may have been.

How would I know for certain?

What I could reply was: 'I have known Darren quite well for years and he has not returned my calls all week.'

This does not suggest a burning desire to fill the national press with propaganda against the chancellor.

That is not to say that there is not serious tension between Number 10 and Number 11. It is both ideological and personal, more the latter than the former, which the Brownites understandably choose to exaggerate in September when both Labour and the TUC meet in conference.

Thus (in The Sunday Times) the memoirs of ex-Blair adviser Derek Scott, a dull, decent man whom I've known even longer than Darren, show Mr Blair literally begging Mr Brown to tell him what's in the Budget. The PM, for heaven's sake!

He runs policy within a very restricted circle, not a man to enjoy an argument.

For his part, Mr Blair can be maddeningly bland and is uninterested in economics - not a micro-details man. They are old friends who drive each other crazy.

Mr Milburn and Mr Reid know all this. But my hunch is that they believe Blair remains the better political strategist, the man best able to win elections where they are won - on the centre ground, whatever TUC leaders have said in public this week. Both men are naturally combative, unwilling to be bullied by Gordon.

So it is true, as reported, that Mr Milburn, Mr Reid, culture secretary Tessa Jowell and former transport secretary Stephen Byers met at lunchtime on Tuesday to discuss exactly what terms Mr Milburn should demand if he agreed to return to Cabinet and organise the election campaign.

This is a campaign, not manifesto, that is largely done, part of it agreed with the unions at Warwick in July.

The four Cabinet ministers all share an interest in pressing the consumer-oriented vision of the NHS whereas Brownites, like former health secretary Frank Dobson, are wary of choice.

At that stage Mr Milburn had hesitated about coming back at all, even for a year, and Mr Blair had to ring his partner, NHS consultant psychiatrist Ruth Briel, to twist the family's arm. Politicians are human, too.

Personally, I think it is a leap too far to talk of Mr Milburn running for postBlair leader against Mr Brown or that he is Mr Blair's anointed leader of the anti-Brown promarket faction, though (needless to say) that is what the Brownites think.Mr Milburn was embarrassed when his old chum, Mr Byers, said at the weekend that he'd make a great PM.

How do I know all that? Just take my word for it, remember I am 59 and a grandfather. I also know, yes know, that Mr Blair still regards the Chancellor as his successor when the time comes, whatever you may read in the Daily Beast.

But he wasn't very close to quitting over the Iraq war last spring and he certainly is not now. l