What David Miliband could have learned from Chris Huhne

by Stephen Tall on January 11, 2010

David Miliband’s reputation has taken a bit of a knock over the past week. Today Labour MP Geraldine Smith went on the record to give her withering assessment, as noted by The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow:

David Miliband needs to display a more mature attitude, really. … I think he’s yet to prove himself in any capacity. … I think David Miliband is probably finished as a potential leadership candidate. … he hasn’t covered himself in a glory. I think he’s behaved in quite an immature way. Labour party members are very angry about what’s gone on in the last few days.

Strong stuff, even in a backbiting party hellbent on imploding this side of the general election. But I don’t feel much sympathy for Mr Miliband, who has brought his woes on himself.

The big decisions in life are nearly always binary: you either choose to do something, or you choose not to do it.

Mr Miliband has faced the choice of whether he wants to be Labour leader on three occasions: in 2007, when Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister; in 2009, when James Purnell resigned from the cabinet; and in 2010, when the Hewitt-Hoon axis threatened to trigger a secret leadership ballot.

On each of those three occasions Mr Miliband has chosen not to pick up the gauntlet. Which is fair enough; he is, after all, only 44, and has a young family. Why burden himself with the toughest job in the country when you know your party is about to crash and burn within a matter of months?

The trouble is Mr Miliband has – while declining to stand for the leadership – continued to hint that he thinks he’d make a much better fist of it than Gordon Brown is doing. In summer 2008, he famously pitched his credentials in a Guardian article (‘Against all odds we can still win, on a platform for change’) when Labour was at perhaps its lowest ebb.

Then last week, Mr Miliband issued perhaps the weakest ever statement of support* for a sitting Prime Minister, belatedly confirming he “supports the re-election campaign for a Labour government [Mr Brown] is leading”.

Mr Miliband is, I hear, a clever chap. Which is perhaps why he is so effortlessly too clever by half. He seems to believe that he can face both ways at the same time: never being unofficially disloyal, while making it perfectly plain to anyone who’s listening to him that, yes, he is ready, willing and able to become Labour leader … as soon as he thinks he’ll be assured of victory.

The contrast between David Miliband’s two-faced cowardice and Chris Huhne’s straightforward honesty is a telling one. In 2006, hardly anybody (including many within the Lib Dems) had heard of Mr Huhne, a newly elected MP. But when the leadership vacancy arose, through a powerful admixture of ambition, determination and sheer nerve he finished a strong second to Ming Campbell, deservedly bagging himself a top shadow cabinet job in the process.

From which position, Chris Huhne could have ‘done a Miliband’, shown himself to be outwardly loyal while quietly plotting. But he didn’t. While making plain he would be a candidate in any future contest he also pledged, and stuck by, his promise of loyalty to the incumbent. He has done the same throughout Nick Clegg’s tenure as leader, too. In the process he has earned the admiration and respect of party members.

David Miliband: take note.

* to be fair, RAB Butler perhaps pips Mr Miliband for most back-handed support of his leader – when asked by a journalist if Anthony Eden was ‘the best Prime Minister we’ve got’, he replied simply, ‘Yes.’ Steve Norris later used the line to support John Major.