Without a starring role, David Miliband had to leave the stage

The soap opera saga needed bringing to an end and the thwarted brother's emigration does the job as well as reconciliation.

David Miliband's decision to quit parliament removes him from the exquisitely tricky position he had been in since narrowly losing the leadership contest to his brother in 2010. From the moment of his defeat any intervention he made, regardless of the topic, was interpreted as part of a complex family psychological drama connected in some way with his thwarted ambition. That is partly because there was a cadre of senior Labour figures who doubted Ed’s capability to do the top job properly and privately toasted the elder sibling as a leader-over-the-water.

Once Ed had consolidated his hold on the leadership those dissenters who still questioned the strategic direction of the party focused their mutterings instead on the perceived failings of Ed Balls to advance a persuasive economic argument. David’s old cheerleaders downgraded their ambitions for the former foreign secretary and started toasting him instead as shadow-chancellor-over-the-water.

At no point did D Miliband give any public encouragement to that kind of chatter. I’ve never seen any evidence he nurtured it in private either. His deep irritation and frustration at the “pantomime” and “soap opera” that accompanied his every policy pronouncement always struck me as genuine. The awkward reality of his situation was that he had wanted only one job in the Labour party and it isn't vacant now or likely to be soon.

The line from Ed’s office has always been that David would be welcome in the shadow cabinet or in some other senior role but that was as much a statement of intent, necessary to show the will for fraternal reconciliation, as it was a plausible recruitment drive.

That doesn’t mean Ed’s hope of involving David was insincere. On the contrary, the Labour leader’s office is definitely in the market for substantial figures to bolster the frontbench. Some Ed Miliband allies are given to privately lamenting the weakness of the shadow cabinet and its shortage of people prepared to do “heavy lifting”. When I asked one senior Ed ally recently about David’s position I was told: “It’s crazy to have a star striker just sitting on the bench.”

But what would the elder Miliband actually do? In theory, he would need a role that boosted Labour’s chances of election without stoking mischievous chatter about recrudescence of sibling rivalry. That was clearly impossible. David had tried periodically to intervene and found that whatever point he was trying to make – on welfare, on Europe, on the economy – was interpreted as criticism of the choices made by his brother. He was typecast as the embittered Esau to Ed’s Jacob. Either that or it was configured as a move against Balls.

The longer this went on, the more irritating it became for everyone involved. Compounding that frustration is the stubborn salience of the family usurpation on the doorstep and in focus groups. It is one of those personal stories that, in pollster jargon, “cuts through”  - a rare phenomenon when few things in politics resonate with a busy and mostly uninterested public. To Ed’s perpetual irritation, not being his brother remains one of the few things that people who don’t spend unhealthy amounts of time following politics actually know about him. For that reason I suspect David’s departure to US will be seen in the Labour leader's office as the least worst outcome now. One way or another, this was an issue that needed closing down and emigration achieves that goal, not perhaps as romantically as a great public reconciliation but quite effectively nonetheless.

There are quite a few people inside Labour who will be bitterly disappointed at David’s departure. One inevitable interpretation is that it cements the victory of the old Gordon Brown faction over the forces of Blairism. That is plainly the gloss Conservatives will gleefully apply. It is an interpretation that carries some resonance for the generation that bears scars from New Labour's epic vendetta.

On the night of the leadership election one of David’s closest supporters told me bluntly “the bad people have won.” It wasn’t an attack on Ed personally so much as an expression of rage at the way the trade union machine had been requisitioned to engineer the election outcome – or so the David camp saw it. The alternative view is that the older brother lost fair and square having fought entirely the wrong campaign, underestimated the party’s appetite for repudiation of Blairism and alienated one too many MPs and local party meetings by acting haughtily as if entitled to the crown.

That is all history now. The contours of allegiance that were so vivid then have already blurred and whole new squabbles, rivalries and ideological animosities have risen to take their place. That’s politics. There is always poison close at hand, it just gets transferred into differently shaped bottles. For the time being those bottles are firmly corked because the government is conspicuously failing and Ed Miliband has a fighting chance of being Britain’s next Prime Minister. For as long as that remains the case, Labour’s brittle unity looks set to hold. Hunger for power is proving more adhesive in papering over cracks than many inside and outside the party expected.

Whatever happens, it has been clear for some time that the next act in the Labour drama was being written without a starring role for David Miliband and he knew it. Since he had no lines in the script, no rousing soliloquies to deliver, he has sensibly chosen to leave the stage.

Ed listens to David at the 2010 Labour conference. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.