Thursday, July 31, 2008

Portilliband?

History often repeats itself. But it takes time to recognise precisely where and how, and often the key players fail to duplicate the historic figure they are most often compared to. For example during the last years of the Major government Ken Clarke was often compared to Roy Jenkins during the end of the first Wilson government. But Clarke did not go on to play a damaging role that electorally crippled the Conservative Party in subsequent years and certainly never formed a breakaway party. Nor did the players always play quite the role at the time that subsequent myth gives them.

Right now it seems umpteen comparisons are being drawn between the Brown government and John Major's circa 1995. So invariably David Miliband is being talked of as the Michael Portillo, the one who lays the ground for a leadership bid and then backs out of it. (e.g. The Debatable Land: Alea Iacta Est, Global Dashboard: Miliband's folly, Daily Telegraph - David Hughes: David Miliband - a leadership tick list and Raedwald: Miliband - too weird-looking to win.) But there are some key differences.

Portillo personally never forced the 1995 leadership election - John Major opted to call that off his own back in response to his weak position on the back benches, not to outmanoeuvre Cabinet colleagues. But once the leadership election was on he, and for that matter Michael Heseltine, went and prepared campaign headquarters for a second round. It's a bit of a myth that either man was preparing to challenge Major but rather both were planning on Major being toppled in the first round and opening up the second round. Really it's only because another Cabinet minster - and to be honest a not very important one - resigned to contest the first ballot that the myth of Portillo preparing and bottling it emerges. Conservative assassinations take place behind closed doors not in full view. Nor did Portillo completely blow his chances then - most people think that if he hadn't lost his seat in 1997 then he would have won the resulting leadership contest. And in 1995 the issue wasn't really about John Major personally but about the direction of the party and policy issues.

This is a very different thing from Miliband all but openly reminding his party there are alternatives to Gordon Brown and putting forward a vision. If he is to challenge Gordon Brown then he must either round up a set of Cabinet heavyweights (if there are enough for a set!) and issue an ultimatum or else he must somehow try to get Labour MPs to support a formal leadership challenge through a very complicated procedure that requires the challenging candidate to publicly put up whilst simultaneously avoiding the odium of adding to the government's problems. That's a very tall order and it's not really clear what Miliband hopes to get out of this. Being sacked for telling Brown he needs to go for the party's sake would at least give him a clear status for a leadership contest. Being sacked for just shit stirring and compounding the government's problems would have the reverse effect.

If Miliband is anyone from that era he's William Hague - seen in some quarters as the Great Hope of the future despite not really having done anything or been properly tested. And when Hague ascended far too soon he proved a disaster as leader. (He should have stuck to his original plan to run as Michael Howard's deputy on a "dream ticket" and then win or lose waited until 2001 for his own bid when he would have been in a stronger position.) So maybe it's not "Portilliband" but "Milihague"?

1 comment:

PJ said...

...the first time as tragedy, the second as farce...

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