What David should do next

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2007

What would you do if you were David Miliband? He’s already getting a whole load of advice, some friendly, some not-so-friendly – it’s a moot point which he finds least helpful.

His options appear limited. He can either contest the leadership of the Labour Party against Gordon Brown, so long the heir-presumptuous; or he can choose to keep his powder dry. When in doubt, flip through the history books.

First point to note: Mr Miliband would be the least experienced British Prime Minister since 1945.

There have been 11 post-war Prime Ministers, five of them appointed to the post while serving as members of the cabinet:

  • Anthony Eden (translated from Foreign Secretary);
  • Harold Macmillan (from the Chancellorship, had been Foreign Secretary);
  • Alec Douglas Home (another Foreign Secretary);
  • Jim Callaghan (yet another Foreign Secretary, though had also been Chancellor and Home Secretary); and
  • John Major (who followed Macmillan’s career path).

The other six were elected to the post having served time as leader of HM’s Opposition, itself a pretty thorough preparation for the job to come:

  • Clement Attlee (who had been Deputy Prime Minister);
  • Winston Churchill (a former Prime Minister, who had also held more cabinet posts even than John Reid);
  • Harold Wilson;
  • Edward Heath;
  • Margaret Thatcher; and
  • Tony Blair.

All 11 of them had served at least a decade in Parliament.

By contrast, Mr Miliband has been an MP for fewer than six years, serving in the cabinet for nigh-on two of them. Promotion to the First Lord of the Treasury in one bound would be quite an hubristic leap.

Of course, it can be argued that such experience doesn’t matter a jot. “Look at David Cameron,” comes the cry. Well, we shall come to see how time treats the Tories’ young pretender; for now it suffices to say that I suspect even he is grateful his moment has not yet arrived, that he has a while longer to work out what he would wish to achieve in government.

From this you might think my conclusion is obvious: Mr Miliband would be daft to stand. If only it were that simple! For there is always another consideration – what will happen if he doesn’t stand?

The sensible analysis reads: let Gordon win the leadership and lose the election, allowing David to take over the reins as the Labour Party’s saviour.

That might seem rational now; but so, too, did the Blair-Brown ‘Granita Pact’ in 1994; as did David Davis standing aside for Michael Howard to assume the Tory leadership in 2003. I wonder if either now regrets their choice? And what of Michael Portillo’s failure of nerve when declining to challenge John Major in 1995? The standard-bearer of the Tory right was instead eclipsed by the vulcanesque John Redwood.

Favourites have a habit of thinking their time is yet to come. But events have a habit of unravelling what once seemed seamless.

When Chris Huhne stood for the Lib Dem leadership last year, he was initially dismissed as ‘Chris Who?’ But ‘Who’ had the last laugh – the freshly-minted Eastleigh MP scored 32% in the first round of voting, besting the better-known and vastly more experienced Simon Hughes, and emerging as the newly-crowned ‘activists’ darling’. Nick Clegg might be considered by the media as Ming Campbell’s natural successor, but Mr Huhne will stand in much better stead next time than if he hadn’t risked standing this time.

Such are the considerations for Mr Miliband to ponder. My verdict? He’d be mad to stand. But he’d be madder not to. The real risk for him is that he might win. However, I don’t think he should worry too much about such an outside possibility.