The foreign secretary, tipped by some as a future leader, was discussing his speech with staff who told him that it was being given six marks out of ten. He was heard to reply: "I couldn't have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment."
The reference is to Michael Heseltine’s direct challenge to Margaret Thatcher, which succeeded in bringing her down but not in his own victory. As the saying goes, he who wields the dagger never wears the crown.
I’ve just watched Ed Miliband undergo an unhappy interview with Jeremy Paxman on this, in which he took the ‘can’t comment on an alleged remark anonymously overheard’ line; I snorted when Paxman said that the source for this quote was beyond doubt. Funny how media folk are entitled to our total trust without explaining themselves.
But that now hardly matters – the comment is wholly consistent with everything we’ve heard about David Miliband over the past few months. Whether he said it or not, it’s plausible and it will be believed.
No, he is clearly not challenging Gordon Brown directly; it certainly wasn’t a Heseltine moment. But thanks to this report, his desire to replace Brown will be assumed near-universally, endowed with the curious authenticity of something inside speech marks.
It puts him into the same position as Michael Portillo during the Tory leadership election of 1995. Portillo didn’t stand, but it emerged that he’d had a large number of telephone lines installed, in preparation for a late entry into the contest. This signalled to everyone that he wanted the job even though he didn’t want to attack John Major head-on at that time. In the end, Major stayed on and Portillo licked the wounds of his miscalculation.
This reported quote has, whether by accident or design, given Miliband his Portillo moment. It makes his ambition a public assumption. It’s tempting to say that the Milibandwagon must now either speed up quickly or grind to a screeching halt. But I suspect that the result will just be another bout of awkward, pathetic squirming in the media by all the usual suspects.
[Update: While I don’t doubt that Miliband wants to succeed Brown, preferably soon, it’s debatable how much he’s actually trying to push Brown out rather than merely positioning himself. And I think this comment (if indeed he said it) could be cast in quite a different light: he’d made a decent yet unremarkable speech, again, and when this was pointed out to him he gave an excuse for why he hadn’t done better. Just a thought. In a similar vein, the only reason I haven’t unveiled my guaranteed plan to save the world economy is that I don’t want to upstage the policymakers.]