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The Sketch: Manchester's lesson: a game of two brothers

They were bordering on hysterical, even before the show began. Hundreds of Labour Party activists snaked round the Manchester Central Conference Centre for hours yesterday afternoon – most of them, it seemed, claiming to have voted for David Miliband. And, when they finally got into the hall, they took photographs of the empty stage. They even cheered Harriet Harman.

In a venue that only a few short days ago was hosting the diffident charm of the Stitch and Creative Crafts Show, this was the Labour Party at its most frantic; The X Factor without the singing and with worse hair. It was all the audience could do not to hold its lighters in the air as the epic Labour leadership election 2010 thundered to its dramatic conclusion.

But first, they had the speeches. Gordon Brown returned with the fervour of an evangelical preacher to take the blame for the catastrophic election defeat in May, and earned a standing ovation for his historic failure. General secretary Ray Collins made a meandering address before Ann Black, whose warm-up for the announcement might have persuaded even the candidates to slip off early and catch the results later on Twitter. When she finally reached "and now to the results", the party chairman got a louder cheer than anything afforded to Mr Brown.

The main contenders themselves, shorn of their phones and sworn to secrecy, gave little away. David Miliband looked superior but with a slightly forced smile, while his brother looked sullen, as if he'd been given a clout by his elder on the way in. It turned out later that the Mili-E team had revealed the result to its supporters, when campaign manager Sadiq Khan entered.

Nevertheless, the tension built to an almost unbearable degree, a penalty shoot-out heading inexorably to sudden death, with the Milibands the last two players left on the field and their supporters baying on both sides.

It was entirely in line with the football motif used by Andy Burnham throughout the campaign but picked up by his rivals in a rush for banality on the last day. Ed Balls claimed he'd been told the most important result of the day was Manchester City's victory over Chelsea, while Burnham himself referred to the seismic shocks earlier in the week that put both Liverpool clubs out of the League Cup. "I get the feeling it's the week of the underdog, don't you?" he said. Well, no.

Even David Miliband resorted to a clunky metaphor about last-minute goals. "Remember Manchester's lesson," he told a presumably dumbfounded interviewer. "When you take your [eye] off winning, you let in a goal in the last minute." A little later, he was just caught by his brother in the final round. Manchester's lesson indeed, and one that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Yet even as Ed Miliband's victory was being confirmed, the opposition was gathering outside. "He has got something about him," conceded one of Labour's most senior officials outside. "But I wasn't very impressed with the manifesto. We went to dozens of meetings with him and talked about hundreds of things, but in the end none of it got in."

A Labour leader who listens to the membership and does what he wants? This one could go far.