David Miliband receives boost from Ed Balls ally

A prominent backer of Ed Balls in Labour's leadership contest today endorses David Miliband as his second choice, in what will be seen as a setback for Ed Miliband's campaign.

The senior Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson, one of Gordon Brown's closest allies, admits that Mr Balls trails the Miliband brothers in the Labour race and urges David Miliband to make Mr Balls shadow Chancellor if he wins, and to hand his brother another senior role such as shadow Home Secretary.

Mr Balls is unlikely to endorse David Miliband in public – a move which would amount to an admission of defeat and could harm his own level of support. But Mr Robinson's public support for David rather than Ed Miliband is highly significant, and Mr Balls is aware of Mr Robinson's decision. Mr Balls was a colleague of Ed Miliband for several years, and tension between the two former Brown aides is laid bare by Mr Robinson's decision to give his second preference to David Miliband rather than to his brother.

Writing in The Independent, Mr Robinson says that David Miliband has "the strength of character for the job" but suggests that his brother lacks the necessary experience to lead the Labour Party.

The former Treasury minister proposes a share-out of the top Opposition jobs, arguing that doing so would keep all three figures in frontline politics. There is speculation in Labour circles that David Miliband and Mr Balls might both refuse to serve under Ed Miliband if he wins the leadership.

Second preference votes could prove crucial when the result is announced on 25 September because a close contest between the two Milibands is expected. Yesterday Mr Balls likened the media coverage of the contest to a "soap opera" about the Milibands, saying this does not do "justice to the issues".

He said: "We've had a daily soap opera of one Miliband brother or the other, with their supporters or non-supporters, commenting here and there. It is a bit like in the election campaign where it was all about personalities. I think what the public want to know, what Labour members and voters want to know, is do we have plans to deal with the big issues of our time?"

He called for Labour to focus more on issues such as house-building, saying that the Government should use a £12bn "windfall" from public borrowing for 2009-10, which is coming in at £155bn, rather than the earlier forecast of £167bn. Andy Burnham, another Labour leadership runner, dismissed suggestions that the contest is a "two-horse race" between David and Ed Miliband. The shadow Health Secretary told the BBC he was "in a strong third position and gaining ground" on his rivals.

He accused senior party figures of "self-indulgent factionalism", arguing that he was not New Labour or Old Labour but "true Labour". He criticised the portrayal of the contest as "a battle between Old and New Labour", arguing that the party had to move on.

Mr Burnham said the media focus on the Milibands was "frustrating", saying he represented "mainstream majority opinion" among Labour activists. He said Labour had become "dangerously disconnected with ordinary working people" when in government, and that he was best placed to "rebuild from the bottom up".

He promised he would not be a "tribal" leader, but was prepared to take on the Coalition Government if public services were cut.