It's lucky for Mr Brown that his Cabinet is full of nitwits straight out of Enid Blyton - but where does that leave the country?

David Miliband

'Nitwit': David Miliband has revealed himself incapable of taking over Gordon Brown's job

One moment Gordon Brown is said to be clinging to the edge of a precipice. The next he is judged by many parts of the media to have delivered a speech that will rescue his prime ministership. Both contentions are false.

He was never that close to being dashed on the rocks. And his speech, though solid and competent enough, has hardly guaranteed his job.

By this time next week most of us will have forgotten all about it. In a month it will be no more than a distant memory.

If the Prime Minister has secured his survival, it is not so much as a result of his speech as because it has become startlingly obvious to Labour Party members during the past few days, as well as to the country at large, that there isn't anyone in or outside the Cabinet who is remotely capable of taking on the job.

David Miliband, billed as his chief rival, has revealed himself as a grade A nitwit. Other potential candidates are so insignificant that they don't even make it on to a plausible short-list.

This is surely an almost unprecedented situation. I know one can get starry-eyed about yesteryear, and imagine that political giants then bestrode the earth.

There have always been plenty of third-rate or untested politicos. But have there ever been so many concentrated in one Cabinet as there are at the moment?

Or, one might tentatively ask, so many in one Shadow Cabinet?

In recent weeks the Left-leaning commentariat has embraced David Miliband as a new Wunderkind in publications such as the Guardian newspaper and Prospect magazine.

We have been told by these wise folk that the answer to the Gordon Brown question is Mr Miliband, who is variously described as brilliant, charismatic and enlightened.

How so many denizens of the so-called Westminster Village could have convinced themselves of what is self-evidently balderdash, if not actually a piece of lunacy, almost passes understanding.

Mr Miliband has some hidden virtues. He is said, for example, to be intelligent, having gained a first-class degree at Oxford.

Gordon Brown

From a different book: Gordon Brown has compared himself to Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights

But academic preciosity was never a sufficient qualification for political success, and whatever attributes Mr Miliband may chalk up in the grey matter department are more than cancelled out when we consider his poor judgment, political naivety and general lack of common sense.

On Monday he delivered a speech that would have lowered the spirits of a gathering of undertakers. That is perhaps no great sin at a Labour Party conference, or especially unusual.

But he was then overheard by a BBC journalist telling an aide  -  though he denies the report, as one might expect  -  that he had striven to avoid a 'Heseltine moment'.

In recalling Michael Heseltine's treachery towards Margaret Thatcher, he was suggesting that he harboured similar ambitions in relation to Gordon Brown.

This boo-boo, though his worst, was not his first of the day. Earlier he had been photographed clutching a banana while grinning like a deranged chimpanzee.

Mr Miliband makes quite a speciality of funny faces which have varied, over the past few days, from the half-witted to the unashamedly idiotic.

He was pictured at a Labour shindig with a garland around his neck, cowering like a little boy as bits of paper were thrown at him.

We can all make fools of ourselves. But if Mr Miliband's aim at the beginning of the conference was to appear measured, reliable and generally prime ministerial, he fell far short of his hopes.

Famous Five

Inexperienced: Most of the Cabinet appear to have strayed out of Enid Blyton's Famous Five

I would say that he emerged as calculating and alarmingly skittish, as well as perhaps a few knives and forks short of a full canteen of cutlery.

You may say that if he is not fit to step into the breach, there must be other candidates. But who?

If a large part of Mr Miliband's problem is that he is young and, having spent most of his adult life as a policy wonk, inexperienced, this is a charge that could be equally well levelled against many other members of the Cabinet from Yvette Cooper to her husband Ed Balls to Douglas Alexander and to Hilary Benn.

We are invited to believe that Ruth Kelly's abdication or dismissal (or, more likely, a combination of the two) from the Cabinet is a heavy blow to the Prime Minister.

It is certainly an embarrassment that undoes some of the good effects of his speech. But she is too callow and insubstantial for her departure to inflict very much damage on Mr Brown.

Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, might seem a relatively heavyweight figure if we did not know that his strings are habitually operated by the Prime Minister.

That old survivor Jack Straw is probably the nearest thing we have to a grown-up minister. I am sure he is eyeing up Mr Brown, rather as an old crocodile in the shallows dreams of dragging down a large rhino.

I can't easily see him running the country, any more than I can imagine any of the young pretenders doing so. In five or ten years, maybe; but not now.

This is to Gordon Brown's inestimable advantage, and it has been illuminated at Labour's conference in Manchester this week. He may be charmless and wooden. He may dither.

He may sometimes twist the facts. He is undoubtedly responsible for some of our present economic woes. But, for all that, he is built on a heroic scale.

He has walked out of a different book. Recently he compared himself, perhaps unwisely, to the morally ambiguous, untamed, towering figure of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Jack Straw might serve as a devious cleric in a Trollope novel; the rest of them have strayed out of Enid Blyton's Famous Five.

Thirty or 40 years ago it was different. Think of the substantial figures in the Labour Party in those days who might have become prime minister but never did so: Denis Healey; Roy Jenkins; Tony Crosland; Richard Crossman; Barbara Castle.

If there were only one such person in today's Cabinet, Mr Brown would be much more at threat. In fact, I doubt whether he would survive.

It is his remarkable good fortune that he is surrounded by  -  his word  -  novices, who might aspire to lead the country but cannot really be taken seriously by any of us.

None of this means that the Prime Minister is fire-proof. Events might turn so against him that a desperate Labour Party would rather field Just William at a General Election than Gordon Brown.

But it is surely undeniable that the Left-wing commentariat who so praised David Miliband greatly oversold their man.

And it is not easy to see where they will find another half-plausible candidate to follow the one that did not so much trip at the first fence as run straight through it.

All this must give Mr Brown some comfort in these dark days. His lack of serious rivals is a great boon for him.

Whether it will turn out to be such a great boon for this country is an entirely different matter.

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