by Dan Hodges
History is written by the victors. Just ask David Miliband.
He’s been plotting. Briefing. Generally making an embittered nuisance of himself.
We know this thanks to Ed, the racily entitled stab ‘n tell biography by James Macintrye and Mehdi Hasan, trailed last week in the Mail on Sunday. Not that all of these allegations are actually contained within the book itself, but its serialisation unleashed the biggest frenzy of speculation, allegation and recrimination since…well… the last lot.
Supporters of David Miliband had been bracing themselves for fall-out from the book’s publication for several weeks. Although they cooperated with the authors, and received assurances that it would be a balanced look at the leadership election, they were under no illusions: “Ed won and David didn’t”, said one insider, “That sets its own narrative”.
The narrative has basically three elements. An enraged elder brother, his political ambitions thwarted by his younger sibling, has been actively plotting his revenge and preparing a bold Blairite counter-coup.
Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution has been the speech-that-never-was, the address, leaked to the Guardian on the eve of the book’s publication, that David would have delivered had he himself been crowned leader.
“The idea that speech was leaked by David is bollocks”, says an insider. “Do you think he’s stupid? If he really wanted to damage Ed would he do it in a way that tied himself so directly to the act”? Other sources point out that, contrary to popular belief, the speech had quite a wide circulation. The Labour party was furnished with a final draft. A copy was left on a teleprompter after a leadership announcement rehearsal, although some former Miliband staffers say it was an early version. External advisors, such as Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman, worked simultaneously on both David and Ed Miliband’s victory speeches. And Ed Miliband’s team approached David Miliband after the result to ask if they could have a copy to assist in producing their own address. David Miliband is said to have considered this, though his team reacted angrily to the idea, with selected passages eventually being passed across instead.
The fact is that, whatever the intent, the leaking of the speech damaged David Miliband more than his brother. “It didn’t do David any good to have that floating around”, said a friend, “It just hyped the story and made it look like he was agitating”. The result was the release of a statement by David urging people to “move on” from the leadership election, and calls from senior DM supporters such as Jim Murphy to rally around Ed.
That said, there’s no doubt that David Miliband has himself found moving on a difficult thing to do. “He’s been in a dark place”, said one friend. To be fair, even members of his own campaign team reject some of the more fanciful charges laid at the door of his brother, such as the claim that David wasn’t aware of Ed’s final decision to stand until it appeared in the media. “That’s rubbish”, said one source, “There were extensive discussions, involving both of them and the wives. David knew Ed was running, and when he was going to announce”.
But what David Miliband did apparently find hard to take was the nature of that campaign once the contest was underway. “David thought they had an understanding”, said one former aide, “They weren’t going to brief against each other. They were going to steer clear of personalities. He stuck to that agreement. Ed’s team didn’t”.
This is confirmed by a journalist who attended an editorial dinner with David Miliband during the campaign. “We’d been getting some pretty heavy briefing from Ed’s people against David. When we asked him about it his face fell. He obviously didn’t know it was going on”. “That really hurt him”, said a shadow cabinet colleague, “He couldn’t believe Ed would allow that sort of thing to happen”.
Members of his team urged him to hit back. But he refused, not just out of a sense of propriety, but also through a fear of what would happen to both campaigns if they become engaged in a destructive briefing war. “David thought it would be a catastrophe”, said a source, “If the whole contest had descended into a bitter and public family feud it would have been the end for both of them. They’d have taken each other off the cliff”.
Although the briefing hurt David Miliband personally, those around him acknowledge the political impact was relatively minimal: “We’re talking Ed Miliband and Polly Billington”, said an insider, “Not Gordon and Damian McBride”. Perceived as much more significant was Ed Miliband’s astute repositioning as the anti-New Labour and change candidate, keen to move on from an election manifesto that actually he’d written himself.
“David was too slow to appreciate the danger”, a former advisor acknowledges, “You have to remember, he and Ed had been part of the New Labour project all their political lives. An attack like that, from the left, he just didn’t see it coming”.
Key supporters urged him to move away from his safety first messaging. Jon Cruddas never told David Miliband to punch his brother. But he did warn him that he had to stop running such a conservative, mechanistic campaign, and begin to make some bold, eye-catching statements. “David, I don’t think you’re winning this”, he told him in one meeting, “You’ve got to open up. Stop nuancing and start painting in primary colours”.
David responded with a speech at the Keir Hardie lecture that was regarded as his best of the campaign. But by that point Ed had the definition and the momentum. David’s team, nervous that the contest was slipping away, urged him to reach out to Ed Balls and try to secure his second preferences.
Again, he hesitated, “The problem was Balls’ Bloomberg speech”, said an insider, “David thought it was much too weak on deficit reduction. It made it very hard for him to offer Balls the position of shadow chancellor”. By the time David Miliband began to tentatively court Balls it was too late. Key members of Balls’ team had already begun to mobilise behind his brother, along with Gordon Brown, who personally telephoned selective wavering MPs. Their intervention proved decisive.
It did not help that David had allowed himself to be characterised as the last living Blairite. As the contest developed Miliband’s team became desperate to put distance between themselves and the other living Blairites. They sought, and received, assurances from Blair himself that he wouldn’t intervene directly in the contest. But they failed to elicit a similar guarantee from Peter Mandelson, whose claim that Ed Miliband would lead the Labour party “into a cul-de-sac”, proved to be a crucial turning point. “It was a disaster”, said one David supporter, “Those MPs who were sitting on the fence all started shifting towards Ed. David was furious with Peter. In fact, he still is”.
So is all this history as ancient as some would claim? Since “bloody Sunday”, which saw the revelations in the book, the leaking of David’s victory speech and broader concerns about Ed Miliband’s leadership collide, both brothers have been making efforts to stress that the tensions of the past will remain there.
Some insiders are, to put it mildly, sceptical. “Perhaps we’re all just going to get along now”, said one David Miliband supporter, tongue pressed firmly to his cheek. Others claim that both brothers peered into the abyss, and recoiled at the sight. “David and Ed witnessed what happened to Tony and Gordon at close quarters”, said a shadow cabinet colleague. “They saw how, in the end, it destroyed them both. They know the party can’t afford a repeat of that”.
David Miliband has not relinquished his leadership ambitions. But those closest to him are adamant, in a pointed way, that he doesn’t intend to trample over his brother to fulfil them. “Look”, said a friend, “what’s David supposed to do? If he stays on the outside he’s plotting and scheming. If he comes back in he’s a distraction and a back seat driver. He can’t win”.
He’s certainly not at a loss for advice. “It’s time for him to return to the shadow cabinet”, says one former aide. “I’ve been arguing that for a while. It’s the only way to begin to draw a line”. “He’d be crazy”, says another shadow cabinet insider. “Every statement would be set against what Ed had said. He needs to stay precisely where he is”.
So will he? “Look, the defeat hurt him personally”, says a friend, “And Ed hurt him personally. But he’s not under any illusions. A lot of the problems and criticisms Ed’s facing are problems and criticisms that would have been directed at David even if he’d won. Yes, he’s still angry. But there’s also a little bit of him that thinks, ‘there but for the grace of God’”.
History is indeed written by the victors. And for the moment David Miliband can do little except hope their verdict isn’t undly harsh. But that doesn’t mean he has given up all thoughts of eventually penning a chapter or two of his own.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.