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29 November 2022

Is David Miliband planning a political comeback?

Keir Starmer might not be able to afford to have such an explicitly pro-EU figure in his top team.

By Freddie Hayward

The New Labour heavyweight David Miliband is back in the UK. The former foreign secretary has popped up in the media over the past ten years commentating on foreign policy from afar as chief executive of a New York-based humanitarian organisation, but rumours about his return to British politics are swirling around Westminster.

On Andrew Marr’s LBC show yesterday Miliband did not deny that he could return to politics, and when asked whether he would be in parliament in 2024, he suggestively said “that’s not been decided”.

Much would depend, of course, on whether Miliband actually wants to re-enter the fray of British politics. Top of his mind is likely to be Labour’s strong position in the polls, which means he faces the attractive prospect of returning to government, not opposition. But he would also have to smooth things over with his brother, Ed, who beat him to the Labour leadership in 2010 after a bitter contest and is an influential figure in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet. Fratricidal warfare is the last thing Labour needs.

Assuming he wants to return to parliament, there are a few options open to Miliband. He could try to secure a candidacy for a by-election between now and the next general election. Or he could simply wait until that general election is called, which is expected to be in 2024. (Or Starmer, as leader of the opposition, could propose Miliband as a peer in the Lords, although that would by convention prevent Miliband holding a senior cabinet post.) Overall, Starmer’s tight grip on the selection process for new MPs means it would be tricky to get a seat without his approval.

That’s part of the reason why the issue ultimately comes down to whether the Labour leader wants Miliband back in the party. Starmer is not too proud to bring New Labour figures back. The former education secretary David Blunkett has led an inquiry into skills. Gordon Brown has produced a report on how the party should reform the constitution. Tony Blair has made no secret of offering advice to Starmer, and the shadow cabinet is being trained on how to act in government. Starmer seems keen to listen to those who have spent time in office.

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The problem for Starmer would lie in Miliband’s advocacy for a closer relationship with the EU through some form of association agreement. In the LBC interview Miliband argued that the UK needed to align with EU regulations and that “the problem with free movement is the way in which it gets maligned”. He clearly knew exactly what he wanted to say and went well beyond the line agreed by the shadow cabinet. In this light, his comments seem more like an attempt to shape Labour policy from the outside than a pitch to return to the front line.

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The question therefore is whether Starmer can afford to have such an explicitly pro-EU figure in his top team. Starmer has put a lot of effort into changing the Labour Party’s image on Brexit and immigration. His comments this weekend ruling out a return to the single market and freedom of movement are testament to that.

Imagine in the not-too-distant future that Labour wins the next general election, the economic impact of Brexit has become more visible and the pro-EU voices in the Labour Party have grown louder. Starmer would have to wonder at that point whether his position on Brexit – whatever it may be – was compatible with Miliband’s.

[See also: “You don’t trash your neighbours”: David Lammy on global Britain under Labour]  

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