Ed Miliband expressed the hope that his brother David would eventually return to British politics after the former Foreign Secretary confirmed that he is to move to America to head a humanitarian relief charity.
Ed, who pipped his older brother at the post in a bruising 2010 Labour leadership race, admitted it had been “difficult” but said: “Time has helped to heal that.” He added: “British politics will be a poorer place without David. I hope and believe that at some point in the future he can once again make a contribution to British public life….If I become Prime Minister, I will make sure he serves the country in one way or another.”
Tony Blair, for whom David worked as policy chief before becoming an MP in 2001, said: “I hope and believe this is time out not time over.“ He added: “He is obviously a massive loss to UK politics.”
However, friends of David played down the prospects of a return to domestic politics. “After this change of course, it is more likely that he would get a big job in the international arena,” one said.
David, 47, will stand down shortly as MP for South Shields, where he had a majority of 11,109 at the last election. No date has been fixed for the by-election, which could be held in May. In September, David will become president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which specialises in helping refugees. The son of the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who fled the Nazis, said: “The IRC’s mission is personal for me because my own parents were refugees who arrived in Britain in the 1940s.”
The former Foreign Secretary was showered with praise from friends, including Bill Clinton, and foes alike. “It’s a career change for me,” David insisted in a series of broadcast interviews. “I’ve not even left yet…I haven’t started my new job so the idea I would start thinking now about the job after this one would be wrong.”
Since leaving the Labour frontbench after the 2010 party leadership contest, David has agonised on whether to come back. His brother offered him the key job of shadow Chancellor and many Labour insiders hoped he would return to a senior role before the 2015 election, believing this would reassure swing voters that Labour could be trusted to run the country.
David sat awkwardly on the fence – and the backbenches —for two and a half years. He knew he would be accused of sulking if he remained there, so his choice became one between serving under his brother and leaving politics. The prospect of the IRC job arose around Christmas; its appeal grew on him.
His rare interventions in domestic politics received microscopic analysis by a media keen to magnify any scintilla of difference with his brother. That reminded him of how difficult a Shadow Cabinet return would be.
“I want it to be the vision Ed has versus David Cameron's vision. I didn't want to become a distraction from that central task, I didn't want the soap opera to take over the real substance of what needs to be done,” David said. “We’re two brothers who fought a leadership election, but we don’t fight each other.”
His “sadness” at leaving Britain extended to the Blairites. Some believe David could be Prime Minister today if he had joined one of several botched coups against Gordon Brown in 2009 and 2010 while he was Prime Minister. “David would have inherited the crown but he lacked the killer instinct,” one Cabinet colleague recalled. “But he wasn’t alone. People like Harriet [Harman] and Jack [Straw] wouldn’t pull the trigger. They had one bullet and were afraid that if they missed, Gordon would kill them.”
Allies think that, if David had led Labour in the 2010 election, he would have won 20-odd more seats than Mr Brown, tipping the balance in favour of a Lib-Lab Coalition.
Friends say David’s defeat at his brother’s hands was all the more painful because, when anti-Brown coups were discussed, Ed gave the impression he would not stand against his brother if Labour lost in 2010. But time moved on, and Ed changed his mind, egged on by allies who urged him not to miss his chance to win the leadership. David came top in 90 per cent of constituency Labour parties but it wasn’t quite enough; Ed squeaked home on the back of trade union votes.
One of the great “what ifs?” in British politics is: where would Labour be today if David had won the leadership. “Twenty points ahead in the polls, not 10,” was the curt reply of one Blairite yesterday.
David would have acknowledged Labour’s mistakes during its 13 years in power more quickly and dramatically than Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have done.
David’s leadership acceptance speech that never was included a pledge to bring in tough rules on public spending and deficits to restore Labour’s credibility. He would have told Labour delegates bluntly that the deficit ”is the biggest argument in politics, and the biggest danger for us. George Osborne says we are in denial about the deficit. Because he wants us to be. So let's not be. It is a test.“
As David departs the stage, it is a test Labour has not yet passed.