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Saturday, 25 September 2010

He missed his moment

For the first time since Tony Blair swept to the leadership in 1994, the Labour Party today will elect its new leader. It appears to have gone down to the wire. And in the battle of the brothers, Ed Miliband now seems most likely to snatch the crown from his brother and long-running favourite, David.

This would be a remarkable turnaround. It would be a staggering psychological and political blow to David Miliband, who has been leader-in-waiting since at least 2007. And in a contest that has failed to spark and where it has been difficult to discern major policy differences between either the Milibands or their other opponents, it would reveal boldness – or the lack of it – as the decisive factor in this leadership race.

It was never clear that Ed Miliband would even run for the leadership. Although it is reported that Ed told David he would run as far back as January, it was a shock that Ed decided to run at all. It was a bold decision, and one that stands in contrast with David’s reluctance to seize many moments during Gordon Brown’s troubled premiership.

We now know that David Miliband sought Tony Blair’s advice on whether to run against Gordon Brown in 2007. He decided against it: perhaps fearing defeat, demotion and splitting the party whilst still in office - or perhaps he just thought Brown too big a giant to slay. There was also the botched banana coup the following summer, when David effectively challenged Gordon Brown in a Guardian article. It was “not a time for a novice”, and David Miliband retreated again. And, the following summer, when James Purnell explosively resigned as the local election polls closed in 2009 – Gordon Brown’s most perilous moment – David Miliband once again stepped back from the brink. And bottling it a third time brought him considerable opprobrium.

Perhaps he didn’t want to fight an election he thought was a dead loss. Perhaps (and more likely) he thought Labour would look ridiculous for installing a third leader in a single Parliament. Perhaps he heeded Michael Heseltine’s lesson that “he who wields the dagger, never seizes the crown”.

But the Heseltine lesson is not set in stone. A lack of boldness in seizing the leadership also raises serious doubts about seriousness of desire and seriousness as a politician. Are they someone who genuinely seizes the moment? And it also risks letting your moment pass you by. Ask Michael Portillo, who retreated from challenging John Major in 1995, and then was defeated early on in a contest that elected the disastrous Iain Duncan Smith back in 2001. A dead-cert leader-in-waiting saw his hopes disintegrate. The party was distrustful, of course - but the moment had passed.

We now know from Blair’s memoirs, that he realised in 1994 that Gordon Brown wasn’t bold enough or radical enough to be trusted with the Labour leadership. Until around 1994, he claims he had always been content with being the second-in-command. Perhaps Ed Miliband had a similar journey with his brother.

So, if Ed Miliband wins today, it will be a victory for boldness. It wasn’t a certainty that he would stand. It was even less certain that he would win. Labour’s electoral system is a quirky one, and one that produced a shock victory for Harriet Harman in the deputy leadership contest in 2007. But it will be the result of a considerable boldness and skill if Ed seizes the crown today. And a boldness that might just worry the Coalition Government.

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