Saturday, February 18, 2012

What next for David Miliband?

It was Clement Attlee who famously told a Labour colleague that a period of silence from him would now be welcome, thereby inadvertently earning himself an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations.

And it is certainly true that there are times in politics when it is best to keep your head down and your mouth shut.

By and large, the past 15 months have been such a period for David Miliband, the South Shields MP and former Foreign Secretary who, until October 2010, had been widely expected to become leader of his party.

But it wasn't to be and, rather than risk the sort of comparisons that might have undermined his younger brother's leadership, the elder Miliband stood bank from the political frontline and confined his public statements to the occasional supportive message.

Such was ostensibly the nature of his article in the New Statesman a couple of weeks back in which he outlined a seven-point plan for the future of the party and called for “restless thinking” in its bid to recapture power.

He made a point of praising his brother Ed on no fewer than four occasions, highlighting his success in maintaining party unity, and having spoken out "powerfully" over issues such as welfare cutbacks.

But that, of course, did not stop the political commentariat once more portraying David’s intervention as a covert leadership bid.

The resulting furore saw Mr Miliband forced into another round of interviews in which he appeared to rule out any return to the frontbench on the grounds that it would merely perpetuate the “soap opera.”

One rather venomous interpretation of his actions came from the Telegraph columnist Matthew Norman in an article headlined: ‘The sniping and self-pity of a truly feeble man.’

Likening Mr Miliband’s political modus operandi to the game of Knock Down Ginger, he accused him of thrice raising the standard of internal revolt before “scuttling away to hide in the bushes.”

“The pattern was set in the summer of 2008, when David wrote a barely coded article in the Guardian lacerating Gordon Brown. The moment it was greeted as the challenge to the PM’s authority that it certainly was, off he scarpered, denying any such intent,” he wrote.

“Within a year, his close friend and Cabinet ally James Purnell resigned, laying the ground for David to oust Mr Brown by doing the same. Again he bottled it, and stayed."

Mr Norman saw the New Statesman article, and the semi-retreat that followed it, as more of the same, going on to suggest a permanent silence from a man he charmingly described as “a mincing paean to metrosexual narcissism.”

It was left to the former Labour North official and Blairite blogger Hopi Sen to leap to Mr Miliband’s defence, pointedly describing Mr Norman as a “food writer” alongside various other less polite terms.

But beneath all this knockabout lies a serious point - namely what is to become of a politician who still has much to say about the future direction of his party – but who is unable to say it without his actions being either over- or mis-interpreted?

As one of those ubiquitous ‘friends’ put it: “This is someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the Labour Party. The way the cookie has crumbled, the only way he can do that is through argument and debate.”

Perhaps the real purpose of David’s New Statesman article was to find out whether he can actually now start to contribute to that debate without others seeing it as an attempt to further destabilise his brother’s somewhat faltering leadership.

If that was indeed his intention, the answer seems to be a resounding no.

Sadly, the likely upshot of this is that Mr Miliband may well come to feel that the only way to end the soap opera will be for him to remove himself from the political arena entirely, and leave Parliament at the next general election.

And given his stature in both the country and the region, I, for one, would consider that a shame.

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