Brothers at arms

As the New Statesman hustings showed, the battle for the leadership of the Labour Party has at its h

On Saturday 15 May, barely a week after the general election and just five days after David Cameron walked in to 10 Downing Street, Ed Miliband used an address to the Fabian Society to confirm growing speculation that he was planning to stand for the Labour leadership.

“We have to use this leadership campaign as the first step on the road back to power because that is where we should be as a political party," he said to loud applause. It should have been a moment to celebrate for the former climate change secretary, popular with party activists and backbench MPs. Behind the scenes, however, it marked the culmination of days of intense and agonising deliberation.

A party leadership contest involving two siblings is unprecedented in British political history. Three days earlier, Ed's elder brother, the former foreign secretary David Miliband, had been the first contender to announce his candidacy, instantly becoming the outright favourite. "David is my best friend in the world," Ed Miliband told the Fabian audience. "I'm in it to win it, but win or lose, we will remain the best of friends and I will still love him dearly." He vowed that the contest would be "civilised", but later admitted that it was the "toughest decision of [his] life".

In the run-up to his surprise announcement - a "late, post-election" decision, according to a source close to the shadow energy secretary - the younger Miliband arranged a private, face-to-face meeting with his elder brother in London, the city where both had grown up. What happened at the meeting remains private and neither candidate is willing to discuss it. But, according to sources, Ed told David that he was minded to run. "I'm not going to stand in your way," David replied. For several months now, David has acknowledged to friends that "people are buying shares in Brother Ed".

“He was unfazed by Ed's decision," says one supporter of David. "He didn't throw his toys out of the pram." Friends insist that the two men, sons of the late Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband, remain close, not least for the sake of their mother, Marion Kozak, who is helping to babysit Ed's year-old son. Nonetheless, they have been talking considerably less frequently than before Ed's announcement.

On the evening of 9 June, just hours after nominations for the Labour leadership closed, the New Statesman hosted the first official leadership hustings at Church House in Westminster. Tensions between the brothers were evident. Inside the cramped "green room", David Miliband was enjoying a light-hearted exchange with his fellow candidate Diane Abbott, whom he had that day nominated to help secure a place on the ballot paper. "I'm beginning to think I'll regret this," he joked, as Abbott smiled. Meanwhile, outside the room, Ed Miliband and his team of advisers huddled in the corridor. The brothers exchanged few words before the debate began.

On stage, in front of 600 people and the television news cameras, the exceptional nature of this particular contest was exposed. Pressed to explain why he had advanced his own candidacy, rather than that of his brother, the younger Miliband refused to be critical of the shadow foreign secretary, saying only that "David would make an excellent leader".

However, perhaps reflecting how much he had to lose from Ed's decision to stand, the elder Miliband replied, with a knowing smile, "If I thought Ed would be a better leader than me, I'd be running his campaign." The audience took a moment to react, but when it did, it was with a mixture of gasps and nervous laughter.

The brothers have distinct - but nonetheless similarly New Labour - political backgrounds, coming from opposing sides of the Blair-Brown divide. By a combination of fate and choice, Ed would become as close, and as loyal, to Gordon Brown as David was to Tony Blair. Miliband Sr - nicknamed "Brains" by Alastair Campbell - led the No 10 Policy Unit before Blair persuaded him to stand for parliament in 2001. The then prime minister, who appointed Miliband to the cabinet as environment secretary in 2006, called his protégé the "Wayne Rooney" of his ministerial team. Today, Miliband struggles to shed the crude "Blairite" label.

Ed, meanwhile, continued working for Brown at the Treasury - aside from a brief sabbatical at Harvard in 2003 - until he won a seat for himself in parliament in 2005. It was Brown who, as prime minister, promoted him to the cabinet post of climate change secretary in 2008, and also put him in charge of writing the 2010 general election manifesto. Throughout this period, although seen as a "Brownite", Ed Miliband was the only minister (other than Douglas Alexander, perhaps) who was trusted by the warring factions around Blair and Brown. From before Labour took office in 1997, Ed Miliband was frequently the linkman between the two. Among friends, he would privately despair at the darker side of Brown's spin operation, which would later undermine his brother.

Ultimately, however, Ed was one of the few cabinet ministers who consistently argued that Brown should be allowed to stay on as prime minister. Not only did he reportedly "beg" his brother not to move against Brown towards the end of the latter's premiership, but he argued with others against a coup. Unlike the Tories, Labour has no history of ousting its leaders, and Ed did not believe it should begin one with Brown. He is said to have remarked at one point last year that getting rid of the prime minister would be like "killing our father". This position contrasts with that of David, who is said to have told friends that Labour was heading for certain defeat under Brown.

Political tensions between the two brothers began to rise in July 2008, when - in one of Brown's lowest moments - Labour lost the Glasgow East by-election to the Scottish National Party. The younger Miliband was one of the few ministers to defend Brown publicly at the time. His brother, meanwhile, seen by then as Brown's strongest rival for the leadership, wrote a highly controversial article in the Guardian which attacked the Conservatives but made no mention of Brown, adding to the sense of crisis around No 10.

Ironically, it was in the autumn of 2008 that friends first started urging Ed to consider himself as a contender for the leadership. "Your brother is a red herring," one friend told the then climate change secretary. "You need to start to think of yourself as a future leader." At that time, Ed was not planning a post-Brown push to lead Labour, and would stare, goggle-eyed, at the very suggestion.

To the annoyance of some friends and supporters, he modestly described himself as "the other Miliband", as well as "the other Ed", a reference to Ed Balls, who also began his political career working for Brown at the Treasury. (My prediction in these pages, on 18 December 2008, that "Ed Miliband will emerge as the up-and-coming politician of 2009 and come to be regarded as Brown's natural successor", was distinctly unfashionable at the time.)

But despite Ed's initial reluctance we now have a contest. Journalists, activists and members of the public alike were taken aback at the manner in which the two brothers repeatedly clashed with each other for the first time at the NS-hosted debate. For example, David Miliband was keen to back the 2010 Labour manifesto in its entirety, while Ed Miliband - the author of that manifesto - distanced himself from it. "I'm not the kind of person who's going to stand on a manifesto in May and then in June tell you: 'By the way, I'm going to tippex out bits of it,'" David Miliband said. "How can you possibly say you're going to stand on every aspect of our manifesto?" asked Ed in reply. "We lost the election."

But it was on the Iraq war that the division between the two Mili­bands felt most heated. "I think it has been profoundly damaging to Britain, David, and I disagree with you on that," said Ed. "Ed says there is a difference on this panel over whether war is the last resort. That's wrong," countered David, as Ed shook his head.

The older Miliband refused to recant his support for the unpopular war; the younger Miliband claimed that he had always believed that the UN weapons inspectors should have been given "more time". (At this point David Miliband raised his eyebrows, as if to question whether that really was his brother's view in 2003.) "We cannot fight this contest pandering on Iraq and Trident or we'll be like the Tories on Europe," one Labour MP who supports the shadow foreign secretary said later.

The implication that Ed Miliband is merely saying what the party wants to hear is pushed by a circle of "Blairites", including Alastair Campbell, who has criticised him for "trashing" Labour's record. Campbell says Ed Miliband is "a nice guy", but would make "Labour feel OK about losing". According to his backers, however, Labour needs a thorough rethink of its policies and a fresh focus on "values" before it can even contemplate winning again.

The shadow Welsh secretary, Peter Hain, tells me: "Ed Miliband is the only credible prime ministerial candidate who really gets it - that we didn't lose just because of Gordon. We lost because we lost sight of our values. We became technocrats doing government, rather than mobilisers for a mission." He adds: "As Ed's very broad support also shows, he has that X-factor which inspires young people, whose support, along with over four million others, we must win back to win again."

Supporters of the elder Miliband reject the charge that David is a "technocrat", a word the former foreign secretary said was being "bandied around" at the NS debate. They point out that, aged 27, he was appointed secretary of John Smith's Commission on Social Justice, and that he acted as a "conscience" of the Blair premiership on a range of subjects, including foreign policy - where he objected, inside cabinet, to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

The former international development secretary Douglas Alexander, who deliberated over which Miliband to support, having formed a deep friendship with Ed as far back as 1990, emphasises to me that "David has good Labour values", and argues: "He can bring us together as a party and can lead us to victory at the next election." Alexander, despite his closeness to Ed, is now running David's campaign.

The former foreign secretary's supporters also emphasise his ability to make difficult decisions. And it is true that he has vastly more experience on the international stage. But Ed Miliband has shown a different sort of steeliness, and ruthlessness, in this campaign - not least by standing against his elder brother. Nor is David under any illusions that his single-minded sibling is not running to win.

One of the most memorable moments of the NS hustings came after Ed Balls produced a lengthy answer, preventing other candidates from joining in that particular discussion. Ed Miliband remarked: "It's like being back in the Treasury." Everyone laughed, apart from Balls, who did not even crack a smile. There was a sharp intake of breath from David Miliband. It was a lethal putdown from a politician whom some in the party had considered "too gentle" for a leadership campaign.

Another demonstration of Ed's newfound ruthlessness has been the way in which he has wooed Labour MPs. One influential frontbencher claims Ed phoned him to ask to meet for a drink. "I told him I was backing David," the MP tells me. "But he was adamant: 'Let's have a drink anyway.'" David remains the bookies' favourite, and has amassed support and funding from a range of figures, including the former chancellor Alistair Darling.

The Ed Miliband camp is keen to point out that it has fewer resources than David's well-funded campaign, backed in part by the billionaire David Sainsbury. "It's David and Goliath," one Ed supporter tells me, with his man presumably cast as the biblical David. The growing consensus inside the party is that in the end it is likely that one of the two Miliband brothers will become leader.

The result of the leadership contest will be announced in late September, on the eve of the party conference in Manchester, and almost everyone in Labour circles agrees that if one of the pair had given way to the other, the surviving candidate would be heading for an autumn coronation. But now, in contrast to the last time there was an open contest in 1994, the party will have to choose between two of its most prized assets. There has been no Granita-style "deal" this time.

Some suspect that Ed would find it easier to work under David than David would under Ed. Either way, senior Labour figures will be hoping that their relationship, despite being tested so early on in this campaign, will endure, for the sake of the party that both men seek to lead.

Meet the contenders

Andy Burnham
He has emphasised his northern roots and his "ordinary upbringing" in an effort to distinguish himself from his rivals. A former health secretary, Burnham has made the creation of a National Care Service a central plank of his campaign.

Best line from the NS debate: "If you're not New Labour, Next Labour but Our Labour, be part of my campaign."

David Miliband
The odds-on favourite to win, he was the first to declare. He is also the most experienced candidate, having served as foreign secretary from 2007-2010. His success may depend on the extent to which he can shed his undeserved reputation as a "Blairite".

Best line: "The worst thing that ever happened to Tony Blair was George Bush."

Diane Abbott
The Labour left-winger, who made it on to the ballot paper after David Miliband lent her his support, has cheered the party's grass roots with her opposition to Trident, Iraq and privatisation. Whether this translates into votes remains to be seen, however.

Best line: "Trident is a huge amount of money to spend to defend ourselves against the Tory press."

Ed Miliband
The younger Miliband has won support from the left by calling for the retention of the 50p tax rate, opposing a third runway at Heathrow and criticising the decision to go to war in Iraq. Widely praised as climate change secretary, his appeal extends to green activists.

Best line: "You have to base your alliances on your values, not base your values on your alliances."

Ed Balls
The former schools secretary has run a combative campaign, attacking the coalition over its alleged plan to raise VAT and urging Labour to rethink its policy on immigration within the EU. But his Brownite background may count against him.

Best line: "The Tory cuts are the biggest threat to a universal welfare state in 60 years."

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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