OPINION: Pride on the line as PM switchover looms

We are just weeks away from a new Prime Minister taking over and even though Gordon Brown is the 1/10 favourite with the bookies, this has so far failed to stop a near-hysterical media campaign for a challenger to emerge.

As you would expect, the papers that back Came­ron are the ones keenest on a contest. They are helped in this quest by various failed cabinet ministers desperate to find a ‘stop Brown' candidate, ­although they can't stand themselves because there aren't 44 MPs who would back them.

Someone has to be the sacrificial lamb. Charles Clarke is running out of ideas about how to beat his enemy so comes out with lines such as ‘a week is a long time in politics' and tries to compare Came­ron's rise to a possible David Miliband victory.

Under examination this is utter tosh. Miliband's last Labour conference speech was actually worse than David Davis' attempt at the Tories' event, and we all know what happened to him.

And while Westminster's chattering village may love Miliband, Labour MPs, rank-and-file party members and trades unionists are no so keen.

The Environment Secretary is no doubt enjoying the plaudits but he has the brains to realise that getting thumped in a leadership election is hardly a good career move. The Milliband family are also unlikely to relish the inevitable media interest in their private life that a leadership contest would bring. He is therefore unlikely to stand.

Is it any wonder then that Gordon Brown's PR team is briefing the media with a ‘bring 'em on' message? With the backing of around 200 MPs, Brown feels unbeatable.

Look more closely, however, and the Brown camp has made further adjustments to its strategy. Firstly, it now recognises that trying to change the Chancellor's image is counter-productive. So his aides are attacking Cameron with ‘substance over style'. This was evident in Brown's interview in The Guardian on Saturday, in which he criticises the age of ‘celebrity' - a thinly veiled attack on Blair and Cameron. The Chancellor's new book, Courage: Eight Portraits, is also being serialised in The Guardian starting with San Sun Kyi of Burma - an unlikely topic for a Cameron tome.

Finally, Brown has gone on the offensive over criticism of old ­policy decisions such as the pensions issues and ‘selling off gold'.

With MPs back from their ext­en­ded Easter break and the lobby ­eager to build up a leadership story, we should expect a frantic few weeks of speculation. But, as ever, my ­advice is to ignore the hype and keep your eyes on the bookies' odds.
charlie.whelan@haymarket.com

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