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Child's play for chairman Milburn

It's amazing what spending more time with one's family can do to rekindle political appetites. Little more than a year on from the rough and tumble of outings, sports' days and PTA meetings Alan Milburn has apparently concluded he is ready to return to the comparative calm of high politics.

After the high drama of his principled stand against his sons' demands for a new X-box (or whatever other domestic crisis) it will be a relief to get back to the purer world of dealing with nothing more demanding than the chancellor's latest tantrum.

That terrifying moment when Gordon Brown storms out of strategy meetings yelling “none of you understand me; it's so unfair” is surely a breeze for anyone who has cajoled a child into jeans bought from Asda.

No doubt it was all getting too much trying to juggle both lifestyles. Friends say Mr Milburn was regularly promising to turn up to some important political event only to be waylaid by pages of uncompleted maths homework or sudden demands for backrubs from his partner.

There are suspicions that the prime minister may have given him a “me or them” ultimatum. Mr Blair is said to feel particularly isolated stuck down in London on his own after the loss of his previous political paramour, Peter Mandelson, to Brussels.

Assuming the reshuffle rumours pan out (which is quite an assumption when what is proposed such a monumental “screw you” to the chancellor) Mr Milburn is Mr Blair's choice to be the new party chairman.

Certainly his stint in the domestic legion will stand him in good stead. A year of “eat your greens” tough love is ideal preparation for getting party and country to eschew the easy “chicken nuggets” approach to the public services and swallow seemingly unappetising reforms like tuition fees.

He would also know the dangers of linking rewards to good behaviour when he tells trades unions to stump up the cash for the forthcoming election. Failure to comply should result not in negotiations over upping the the minimum wage but in the confiscation of their Ken Loach videos and a spell on the naughty step.

Mr Milburn's communications skills would be much valued. Friends say he has a number of new soundbites including “because I say so”, “go to your room” and a salvo against voter apathy “Don't care was made to care”.

As for election slogans, “if you don't behave it's back to uncle Michael's house” looks like a winner.

Brown mist

Short of appointing him welsh secretary or insisting he appear on Celebrity Fit Club it is difficult to conceive of a more provocative gesture towards Gordon Brown than putting the colleague he most loathes and fears in charge of the election campaign.

It would be a risky strategy. The prime minister is already offending the chancellor daily with his continued insistence on drawing breath. Now he may be courting full-on apoplexy unless he has merely come back from holiday with a list of practical jokes to play on colleagues (next-up a job swap between Patricia Hewitt and the editor of Loaded magazine).

For all Mr Milburn's talents there is no overwhelming need to give him this job. Almost the only good reasons are to show who is boss and open a new front against the chancellor. If this goes through then Mr Brown may be in his last few months at the Treasury. A PM ready to take such patently aggressive action against the biggest figure in his cabinet would think little of moving him to the Foreign Office straight after the next election.

Pensioned off

Poor Andrew Smith. The work and pensions secretary has gone - the latest victim of his department's failure to get to grips with the savings, pensions and housing benefit problems.

Few voters will notice his departure for the likeable Mr Smith was one of the most uncharismatic figures ever to reach cabinet. His voice was reminiscent of some addled rock star whose student years were spent completely wrecked on drugs and drink, but sadly Mr Smith lacked the accompanying danger or glamour.

Similarly, he only ever uttered one memorable phrase (“our air is not for sale”) and even that turned out to be wrong. On that occasion he was let down by the chancellor who changed his mind on privatising Nats WHAT THAT?? to cover up a supposed black hole in his figures.

It was merely the first time Mr Brown would leave his slavishly loyal colleague swinging. Mr Smith is taking the fall for policy failures in a department which is little more than a district office of the Treasury.

This is an area and a department screaming out for radical reform and yet over seven years the ever-cautious chancellor has stymied many such measures and Mr Smith's “friends” cited rows with Number 10 over reforms as a reason for his going. Perhaps there is another reason for facing down the chancellor.

Perversely, as Mr Milburn may be returning from his family, Mr Smith cited a desire to see more of his as a reason for going. Perhaps he's planning his comeback.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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