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David Miliband’s dignified exit does everyone a favour – including him

Most of what you think you know about the elder brother is wrong. Despite the prevailing orthodoxy, he is neither a Blairite nor the best leader Labour never had

After two-and-a-half years of a sad, draining, complex, politically damaging family soap opera, David Miliband’s departure from British politics is one of those rare developments that require no nuanced reflection.

Without qualification, Miliband’s decision to leave is liberating for him, for his brother and his party. They escape from the deadly drama that had threatened to overwhelm them.

The awkward contortion of Miliband’s enforced and voluntary exile was inevitable from the moment his younger brother won the leadership. He has taken his time in moving towards the unavoidable, but he has got there well before the general election.

Understandably, Miliband was not ready to make the massive leap earlier, having been close to the top of the Labour Party since the early 1990s, absorbed by politics, committed to its benevolent potential and wondering whether unfulfilled ambition might still be met. But recently he gave an interview on fishing policy to a newspaper. His views on fish were interpreted as an attack on Ed. He knew he had to get out.

He is getting out to do a big job, one of the reasons that this final episode in the Miliband drama is good news for the parting brother. Running a big charity in New York, one in which he can pull levers and make a difference to poorer countries, is a job that will prove more satisfying than living a half-life as a frustrated politician. Indeed, a close friend suggests that Miliband will be able to get more done in his new role than when he was Foreign Secretary. If this proves to be the case, Miliband will not be alone. In this anti-politics era, several former ministers find that they are more powerful and wealthy when they leave their elected posts.

The younger Miliband is liberated too. He can get on with his demanding job without being burdened with questions about David, or suffering further introspective doubts about how to handle him. Although the two brothers talk, their relationship will never recover from the highly charged emotions of the leadership contest. David does not speak to some of Ed’s senior advisers and they do not try to make contact with him, knowing there is no point. The relationship was politically destructive and lacked the potential to become more fruitful.

As David packs his bags, accusations of regicide against Ed are bound to fleetingly resurface. They are wholly unfair. Ed did not decide to stand against David. He decided to fight a leadership contest, a subtly different decision. David’s candidacy complicated the sequence of thoughts and certainly did not make the decision easier. Ed’s ambition at the time was justifiable. Unlike with the Conservatives, a vacancy at the top of Labour arises rarely. As a former Cabinet minister with views to the left of David’s, and with a following in his party, it would have been more surprising if Ed had decided not to stand. The tragedy for the family is that two brothers rose in politics at the same time and fought the only leadership contest in their careers where both had a chance of victory. Only one could win.

Another myth arising from the saga is that the elder brother was a “Blairite” and that his departure marks the end of Blairism. This is far too simplistic. David is more identifiable as a social democrat than Tony Blair, capable of delving deeper than his former leader when it comes to policies and the ideas that underpin them. But he felt an intense personal loyalty to Blair, and admired him.

It would have helped if he had found ways of showing his distinctiveness without betraying Blair and his more devout followers, but he was not politically deft enough to pull off this relatively straightforward task. Early in the leadership contest there was a revealing exchange between David and his close ally, James Purnell. By then, David had concluded privately that the Iraq war had been a “disaster”. Although disagreeing with this particular view of Iraq, Purnell pleaded with David to state it loudly in the contest because it would help him win. David refused to do so, out of loyalty to his old boss.

The deftness required to reach the very top comes from long experience of politics at its most intense. David rose very quickly without being exposed to too much raging heat. While Blairites and Brownites battled it out, he would often be chairing a seminar on the Third Way, a less explosive pursuit. Suddenly, in the final years of the Labour government he felt the boiling heat, becoming a potential leader and prime minister almost as soon as he joined the cabinet.

But his error was not the one of mythology. There is a widespread assumption, repeated extensively on the BBC in the past 24 hours, that if David Miliband had challenged Gordon Brown he would have been prime minister. It was not as simple as that. If Miliband had made a bid for the leadership in the midst of an apocalyptic economic crisis, without the active support of Peter Mandelson and the then Chancellor, Alistair Darling, conflagration would have followed. Indeed, civil war would have erupted with their support. There was no certainty he would surface from the ashes of his party as leader.

Miliband took the only decision available to him at the time, which was to stay put. I saw him the weekend after Purnell resigned in protest at Brown’s leadership in the stormy summer of 2009. He was in considerable agonies about the future of the Labour government, but did not regret his decision to stay as a minister. His error was to allow himself to become a “leader-in-waiting”, even encouraging some to think that he was ready to make a move.

As I wrote on Tuesday in relation to Boris Johnson, leaders-in-waiting do not become leaders. They become too interesting, too early. David was doomed when ultra-Blairites started to brief that he could beat Brown and become prime minister. He should have dampened their overexcitement instead of occasionally fuelling it.

No one will know what he would have been like as leader, although, for sure, we would all have read many lofty columns about how Labour had chosen the wrong brother. His dignified exit is part of a pattern since the general election. Across a party with plenty of internal tensions there is still iron discipline, public unity and an intense will to win, a legacy from New Labour. David has made his contribution not by leading his party, but by leaving the country.

Twitter: @steverichards14