Steve Richards: Dramas that expose a Miliband myth

In ruthlessly highlighting Labour's mistakes, Ed makes possible a realignment of the centre-left, the objective of Tony Blair and David in the mid-1990s
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The Independent Online

Myths form quickly in politics. One of them is taking hold in parts of the Labour Party and the media. The myth goes along these lines. Labour chose the wrong brother. David is the party's lost leader. His younger brother is guilty of regicide, even if the act of brutality took place before David had secured the crown. In Labour's latest Shakespearean drama, David becomes a martyr and the party heads off to oblivion under the leadership of a ruthlessly vain younger brother.

The last few days fuel the myth, and yet on closer examination expose the flawed analysis that shapes it. Observing David being pursued endlessly by camera crews, and having to go through the hell of watching a younger brother deliver the leader's speech, I felt desperately sorry for one of the most decent and thoughtful figures in politics. Yet the bleak frenzy suggests to me also that he would not have been the right leader for his party at this particular junction.

In some ways the traumatic twists and turns since Saturday's result have been a compressed version of David's recent career. On Monday at Labour's conference in Manchester he was door-stepped several times by camera crews and reporters asking him about his future intentions. He could not say what they were. "Ask me about sub-Saharan foreign policy," he joked. On the question the journalists wanted him to answer he had probably at that point not decided.

This was not a one off. The media scrum, the sense of hysteria, and the lack of resolution that followed had a familiar air. The sequence has played out several times since 2007, when David first became a leader-in-waiting.

In the summer of 2008 he wrote an article that was interpreted widely as a move against Gordon Brown. All hell broke loose. I seem to remember David walking into Broadcasting House for a pre-arranged interview and being pounced on by a thousand cameras. "Are you standing against Gordon Brown, Mr Miliband?" The answers were ambiguous enough to fuel the stories.

In the summer of 2008, as James Purnell prepared to resign, seething questions raged once more. "What are you going to do, Mr Miliband?" Then in January of this year he was doorstepped outside his house in the evening of the final attempted coup against Brown, and gave answers about his intentions that were not definitive. These are a lot of highly charged doorsteps for someone who is – or was – more interested in ideas and policy than the soap opera of frantic ambition.

I cannot quite work out why he got himself into so many hysterical episodes of the soap opera, but I suspect it is because he became a leader-in-waiting too early in his career, before his political antennae were fully developed. He became the great hope of some Blairites in the spring of 2007. They pleaded with him to stand against Gordon Brown and told him he could win and be prime minister by the summer. Some newspapers made the same case.

He had only been in the Cabinet a short time, as he was modest enough to observe in private. He was not like Michael Heseltine, who had a plan to be prime minister from when he was at university, not that this helped Heseltine become a leader. But from that moment, in the spring of 2007, he was trapped in a deadly role. Leaders-in-waiting rarely become leaders. One of Gordon Brown's underestimated political achievements was to be a leader-in-waiting for 13 years and then to become a leader. It hardly ever happens.

Somehow or other I suspect that if David had bucked the trend and succeeded last Saturday there would have been more such crazed and unresolved sequences. They seem to have become a feature of his career. Even yesterday afternoon there was a frenzied photocall outside his home several hours before he announced he was not standing for the Shadow Cabinet.

What happened on Tuesday afternoon at the conference was even more highly charged. David should have been aware that a camera would be focused on him for his brother's entire speech. Correspondents were waiting for a look of anger or disapproval. He gave them more than that. His disapproving words to Harriet Harman for applauding Ed's disavowal of Iraq were a genuine moment of theatre. The fact that he expressed them when he was graciously determined to ensure this was "Ed's day" suggests a slight lack of awareness about the media's capacity to leap at any given moment.

At least as important, his anger over Iraq showed that David could not escape entirely from his past and his wholly understandable loyalty to Tony Blair, a leader with whom he worked closely from 1994 to 2001, when he became an MP. Even so I am slightly mystified by David's angry defiance over Iraq, as I am about his tendency to be the centre of highly charged and yet irresolute doorsteppings.

In the terrible aftermath of war he indicated privately that he considered Iraq to have been a disaster. Publicly he has stated that if he knew then what he knows now he would not have voted for the war. From my conversations with his younger brother in 2002 and 2003 I know he was opposed to the war at the time.

David must have known this too. Perhaps his spell in the Foreign Office, as well as loyalty to Blair, has played its part in his passionately resenting his brother's public disavowal. But his defence of the past, perhaps strengthened by his brother's rejection of some of it, suggests to me he might have struggled to move on to present a fresh, coherent view of the future. A view of what should happen next is inevitably defined by interpretations of the recent past.

The irony is that had he won David had intended to tell his party some home truths about the scale of the defeat and the need to change. This is precisely what Ed did. But in citing examples from the past that David had supported, he triggered another episode in the psychodrama.

There is another irony. In ruthlessly highlighting Labour's mistakes, Ed makes possible a realignment of the centre-left, the original objective of Tony Blair and David when he worked for him in the mid-1990s. In a way that has been underestimated, Ed's speech was framed to reach out to the Liberal Democrats. Over the summer I asked an ally of Nick Clegg's who of the candidates he thought the Liberal Democrats might be able to work with. The ally said Ed Miliband. I have no idea whether that is Clegg's view, but the ally detected common ground in the younger brother's commitment to pluralism, civil liberties and a more progressive foreign policy.

I do not think it is fair or right that a figure with such depth and range as David should have become a leading player in a political tragedy which at times also seemed like a dark farce. Such fates should await more superficial characters, those who see politics purely as a game and a form of theatre. I am certain he will take on many epic jobs in the years to come. But the myth that Labour chose the wrong brother is wrong.

Steve Richards' politics show, 'Rock 'n' Roll Politics', is at Kings Place in London on Monday 4 October