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UK Politics

Behind the united front, the loser's wife sobs backstage

Reaction suggests leadership battle has left family scarred

On the Labour conference platform yesterday, the Miliband brothers embraced each other again after David, gracious in defeat, heaped praise on Ed. But behind the stage, David Miliband's wife was in floods of tears. Away from the cameras, emotions are running very high.

Louise Shackleton, who is said to be urging her husband to quit front-line politics, was consoled by him when he left the platform. Ed Miliband hovered uncomfortably, before eventually going into a side room for a nine-minute meeting with his brother.

As he agonises over whether to run for the Shadow Cabinet or return to the back benches, David is desperate not to overshadow what he calls "Ed's week". Yet the psychodrama of the Milibands continues to run and run.

Ms Shackleton, a concert violinist, is dismayed that her brother-in-law stood against her husband for the Labour leadership and upset at David's defeat.

"She cannot understand how Ed could have embarked on a course that could end David's political career," said one friend of the family.

There are still twists to come. David does not want to announce his big decision until after his brother's keynote speech today. Allies insist he has not made up his mind. "David will wake up on Wednesday morning and decide," said one. Another supporter said: "It's 50:50."

While his wife would be happy for him to turn his back on the front bench, political allies are pressing him to stand in the Shadow Cabinet election – the members are decided by Labour MPs.

Shadow ministers including Tessa Jowell, Jim Murphy, Alistair Darling and Liam Byrne are thought to have lobbied him not to walk away.

MPs recalled that Ms Jowell led a similar operation by Blairites to persuade Tony Blair not to stand down as Prime Minister in 2004 at his nadir after the Iraq war. That pressure paid off. The lobbying of David Miliband may prove less successful.

"He will be accused of petulance if he doesn't stand," said one of his campaign team. "But if he stays in the Shadow Cabinet, he will be accused of sitting on his brother's shoulder.

"The media will constantly be looking for differences between them and asking 'What did David mean by that?' There is a strong argument for giving Ed the space he needs as leader."

However, a prominent Blairite argued: "David is being urged to stay and fight. If we don't win under Ed, we will need him to be around to pick up the pieces after the next election – even if he were not the candidate next time."

Some Blairites are urging Ed Miliband to appoint his brother to the key post of Shadow Chancellor. They say that would reassure middle-class voters that the party would not veer to the left under its new leader. But other MPs fear that would be a recipe for trouble since the Miliband brothers have different views on how quickly the £155bn deficit should be reduced. David backed Mr Darling's policy to halve it over four years, while Ed regards that as only the "starting point" and wants to "improve" it.

Another option would be for David to remain in his current post of Shadow Foreign Secretary. That would limit the scope for disagreements with his brother and give him a longer period to reflect on his future. It would also allow him to quit British politics if an international job came up in the future – though there is no guarantee that would happen.

There is bitterness among David's allies that Ed did not make his leadership ambitions clear when David was offered the chance to become the European Union's first "foreign minister" last year.

David won a standing ovation at the conference when he opened a debate on foreign affairs, leaving some delegates to wonder whether the party had made the right choice on Saturday when it elected Ed by a wafer-thin majority.

Urging Labour to end the "cliques, factions and soap opera" that disfigured the Blair-Brown era, David said: "We have a great new leader and we all have to get behind him. I am really, really, really proud. I am so proud of my campaign. I am so proud of my party. But above all I am incredibly proud of my brother.

"I see Ed as a special person to me. Now he is a special person to you and our job is to make him a special person for all the British people."

Ed Miliband sought to play down the tensions: "There is no psychodrama. David and I have been extremely close during this contest, before the contest and after this contest, and the graciousness he has shown since Saturday speaks volumes about him as a person."