27 Mar 2013

Exit David Miliband

David Miliband looked pained in 2010 after losing the Labour leadership to his brother Ed. Today, he cut an extraordinarily different figure.

In the moments after the Labour leadership contest result was announced in 2010, I bumped into David Miliband and his wife Louise backstage as I was heading back to the conference media area. His face was as pained and as drained as you would expect for a man who had wanted the leadership so badly for so long, who had been the front runner, won the popular vote in the party and with Labour MPs only to lose in the final stretch to his own little brother thanks to the votes of the trades unions.

His stride – always purposeful and tall – had seemed understandably smaller. It was a vision not of a broken man, but a hurting one. This morning, at his home in Primrose Hill, David Miliband cut an extraordinarily different figure.

He was relaxed and confident, excited at a new phase to his life and clearly relieved at exiting what he calls the soap opera of commentary about him and brother Ed. Some thought it a Greek tragedy, it was certainly a strange psychodrama.

He feels he couldn’t say anything without it being analysed for where it contradicts Ed. He wanted to argue for what he thinks, but didn’t want to be disloyal or even be accused of it. That in part is what stopped him challenging Gordon Brown in government too – the knowledge that those who wield the knife rarely wear the crown.

Inevitably his interviews today had been carefully thought through – he didn’t want to take any parting shots at the things he disagrees with about his brother’s leadership. Though it is clear he would have done things differently.

Despite a rash of strange stories claiming David Miliband was about to rejoin the shadow cabinet it was never on the cards. The older brother who lost had been looking for the right thing to do ever since that Labour conference of 2010.

He adopted a public phrase early enough – staying on the frontline but not the frontbench of British politics – to explain why he did not want to join his brother’s shadow cabinet. He got involved in youth unemployment and community organising.

But he was keeping his eye out for the right move, should it come up. Trouble was the big international jobs at the UN, World Bank, EU and IMF don’t come up often. Recently some of his friends had started to again say it was time for David to decide what he was doing – to either serve his brother and knuckle down or get another job and leave. Perhaps that explains the odd flurry in the press. The timing of the headhunters at the International Rescue Committee could not have been better.

In truth the soap opera isn’t over. He isn’t dead. He’s just going over the water. And Ed Miliband will always in part be defined by the act of doing in his brother – decisive for some, ruthless for others. David Miliband won’t say this is the end of his political career. Just a new career for now.

What he does next is anyone’s guess and he doesn’t seem to have any idea himself. If Ed Miliband becomes prime minister at the next election it will become realistically inconceivable for David to imagine coming back to do the same some day.

But he is one of the most political animals I’ve ever met. He is still – despite all the reasons for cynicism after years in politics – an idealist and an optimist who believes he can make a difference and should always try. He might now be joining the ranks of prime ministers we never had, but it would be foolish to think we’ve seen the last of him on the public stage.

Follow @krishgm on Twitter.