When I was working with David Miliband on a guest-edited issue of the New Statesman magazine last summer it was clear to me that he was restlessly in search of a new, demanding public role but did not yet feel able to tear himself away from the Commons. He still wanted to be a player in the game of politics. His wife Louise Shackleton is an American and I had been told by several of his close friends that she wanted David to accept one of the many opportunities that had been offered to him in the United States. She wanted him to move on, to accept that his future career lay outside the frustrations and anguish of Labour politics and outside England. She wanted to remove him from the incessant gossip and speculation of the Westminster village.
During the weeks we worked on the guest edit – with contributions from Hilary Clinton, Richard Branson, Kevin Rudd and Ed Miliband, it’s worth checking out, if you missed it – I tried on several occasions to bring the Miliband brothers together for an on-the-record conversation – “Miliband on Miliband” or “Miliband meets Miliband”. It would have offered public demonstration of their unity – and made a nice scoop for us. It never came close to happening.
David was already weary of what his friends call the “pantomime” of his relationship with his younger brother. There was no intervention he could make without it being perceived in some way as a challenge to or an attack on Ed’s leadership. When he wrote an essay for the New Statesman in March last year, in which he used the phrase “reassurance Labour” to caricature a complacent and reactionary faction in the party, the media response was predictable and hysterical. The Daily Telegraph’s front page splash about the intervention was headlined: “Brothers at war.” Good for the New Statesman. Bad for David Miliband.
Soon after I became NS editor I accompanied Miliband, the then Foreign Secretary, on an official trip to India. He spoke to me again and again over those five days in Delhi, Mumbai and rural Uttar Pradesh about how in politics one’s “motivations” must be understood. “In our first ten years in office we didn’t do a good enough job explaining the motivations for our policies," he told me. “This was the case with the most controversial things we did, with Iraq being an example: people weren't clear about our motivations. You've got to get to the stage where people can disagree with your policy but understand your motivation. If people disagree with your motivations you’re in a very divergent position.”
In truth, the “Reassurance Labour” essay was originally intended as a reply to something Roy Hattersley had published in an obscure policy journal. David told me he was working on the essay when we met one morning for coffee at Portcullis House, Westminster. I persuaded him to enlarge and popularize it and to publish it in the NS. Perhaps naively he was disappointed with how the essay was received. His “motivations” had once again been misunderstood, just as they were in late July and early August 2008 when, with Labour as many as 25 points behind in the polls and with MPs insurgent and openly discussing a leadership challenge, he was seen to have made a move against Gordon Brown. It never amounted to much. The leadership challenge that never was!
Earlier this year there was some chatter to the effect that the brothers were beginning to communicate better and that David might even be prepared to accept a role in the shadow cabinet. I never believed that would happen. He would not have wished to shadow William Hague having already served for three years as Foreign Secretary during which period he began to evolve a more multilateralist, less interventionist, post-Blair foreign policy.
The role of shadow chancellor interested him but he knew Ed Balls would not be moved from that position before the general election. So where did that leave him? What could he do? How best could he contribute without being seen actively to undermine his brother? And if not now, when?
A confidante of the brothers told me a few weeks ago that relations between them had not improved. “David is not even at first base in forgiving Ed, and Ed still doesn’t understand – or is in denial about – what he did to David,” I was told. “There is no way David is coming back.”
Now we have had official confirmation that David Miliband is leaving politics and the country. He is indeed not coming back, his motivations misunderstood to the very end. Labour has lost one of its brightest and best. The party’s talent pool has just become even shallower.