New Forest East



By Ann Treneman

The Times – 2 February 2005

The hair-do that is Alan Milburn arrived in the Commons just as Transport Questions started to tackle the vexed subject of why the new timetable on the Cotswold line has been a disaster.

“Milburn has had a haircut,”

one of my colleagues whispered to me in tones of great urgency. My eyes snapped to attention. The mind can wander during Transport Questions, even when the Cotswold line had prompted Alistair Darling to use his strongest language (“It has been lamentable,” he droned in his entirely even way).

Indeed, the Milburn hippie locks had been subjected to a trim. But what was going on with his face? Were those sideburns? They looked more substantial than usual, if lopsided. Mr Milburn’s hair is in a constant state of flux and, no matter what he does, it always seems to be on the brink of being out of control.

This inability to look contained is Mr Milburn’s signature characteristic. You never know what he is going to say because he doesn’t know himself. He has incredible confidence. Mr Milburn prowls around as if he is a very big beast in the political jungle. It is fascinating, and not just to me, for he is even going to be featured in an upcoming nature documentary.

I have seen a preview of this. The camera shows Milburn, crouching on his haunches and hair flowing behind him in the winds of the African savannah. Sir David Attenborough’s magisterial voice whispers to us:

“And here we see one of nature’s enduring mysteries for this is only a tomcat and yet, as we can see from his behaviour, he thinks he is a lion. It is really only his roar that gives him away, as you shall hear.”

It is uncanny how life can imitate art for, back in the Chamber, Mr Milburn was indeed trying to roar. Every month the Commons sets aside ten minutes for questions to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Every month Mr Milburn spends the whole time telling us about his panoply of cross-governmental meetings. He is also Labour’s election co-ordinator, but never admits to any meetings about that.

The Tories love to taunt him. Was he aware that the Deputy Prime Minister had called him an

“over-promoted popped up backbencher”?

Mr Milburn’s head did indeed pop up at this, but he merely shook what he no doubt thinks of as his mane. Bizarrely, he was asked if he had met Lord Birt. MPs screamed with over-excitement. Lord Birt, you may remember, is an expert in “blue-skies thinking”.

“The noble Lord Birt makes a range of useful policy suggestions,”

smirked Mr Milburn.

“As the house is aware, he is an unpaid strategy adviser to the Prime Minister.”

Julian Lewis jumped up for the Tories. He is Mr Milburn’s shadow and has not had so much fun since the end of his last obsession, the Cold War.

Why, he asked, had Mr Milburn allowed the Labour poster that depicts Michael Howard as a leering Shylock? He noted that, last year, the Labour Party chairman had described the Shadow Chancellor as a “21st-century Fagin”.

“Given the outrage that that smear caused then, how could you have thought anything other than the fact that what you were doing in reviving it in your poster advertisements was nothing more and nothing less than a calculated campaign of sly anti-Semitism?”

Mr Milburn tried to roar but it came out as a yowl.

“Those poster designs were not in any way, shape or form anti-Semitic. What they were was anti-Tory,”

he said.

The hair-do quivered with conviction then swept out, no doubt heading for its lair.