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Will it be Mili-D? Or will it be Ed B?

Labour’s future revolves around a soap opera involving two political families.

I've been here at the Labour party conference in Manchester for less than 24 hours and yet I have to agree with the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow when he says that only two questions dominate the conversation right now:

  1. Will David Miliband stay in the shadow cabinet?
  2. Who will be the next shadow chancellor?

In previous columns and blogposts, I've speculated about David M's future, too. I suspect he is waiting till 5pm on Wednesday (the deadline for shadow cabinet nominations) because he wants to see if the party will beg him to stay on and serve on the front bench.

But can someone as confident (arrogant?) as the elder Miliband serve under his kid brother? "I really wonder if he'll be able to do it and whether he'll actually stick around," a close friend and supporter of his in the Parliamentary Labour Party told me last week. There was a pained look on the MP's face.

If he does "stick around", what does he do? Is there any other job for him, shadow chancellor aside? Will he want to stay on as shadow foreign secretary, having already done the foreign sec job in government for the past three years? Won't it be odd to have two brothers in the top two jobs in the shadow cabinet?

And is there, as the FT asks on its front page, a split between the brothers on the deficit, with DM backing Alistair Darling's halve-the-deficit-in-four-years plan while EM sees it only as a "starting point"? Or will Ed M go with Ed B, despite the silly claims from commentators that the latter "won't give Labour economic credibility". Really? Even though his position on deficit reduction is backed by Nobel-Prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, the FT's Martin Wolf and Samuel Brittan, and even the IMF?

I discuss the shadow cabinet elections in my column in the magazine this week, and I also make the case for Ed Balls to be the next shadow chancellor. I suspect David Miliband will wait a few months (a year?) before quitting front-line politics and going off to take a high-profile, high-paid job on the international circuit (EU, IMF, World Bank, UN, etc) because, in the words of a shadow cabinet colleague of his, "If he quits now, it'll look like he's throwing his toys out of the pram."

But if he does ask for, and get, the shadow chancellor's job from his brother, then that means David Miliband is in for the long haul, because Labour cannot afford to switch shadow chancellors in the middle of this cuts-ridden, economy-focused parliament. If he's not signed up for a full term, then I'd suggest Ed Mili create a new and nebulous position for him in the short-to-medium term -- perhaps "shadow deputy prime minister", facing off against Nick Clegg each week in the Commons, taking on the constitutional reform brief and helping formulate Labour's position on the Alternative Vote and the May 2011 referendum campaign. As I've said, I'd prefer that the shadow chancellor job go to the bullish Balls.

Now, others in the left/Labour blogosphere -- Will Straw, Sunder Katwala, et cetera -- suspect Yvette Cooper may be the best alternative to both Balls and the elder Miliband as shadow chancellor. She is a trained economist like her husband, but has fewer enemies than he does. (Plus, she is a woman and feisty, too . . .)

With Ed Miliband as leader, and the shadow chancellor's post expected to go to David Miliband, or Ed Balls, or Yvette Cooper, the future of the two biggest jobs in the Labour Party has become part of a "soap opera" (to borrow a phrase from Mili-D) revolving around two families: the Miliband brothers and the Balls-Cooper husband-and-wife.

Weird, eh?