Return of Miliband the elder would be a bad sign for Labour

It’s not quite a case of leadership contest be damned, but the question on many Labour lips in recent days has been whether David Miliband is about to cut short his exile from British politics. If he does choose to leave the running of the International Rescue organisation for a return to Blighty, it seems inevitable that doing so will involve a by-election and a return to Westminster. And if that happens, would he make a play for the Labour leadership denied to him by his brother five years ago?

These are questions that Mr Miliband has done little to damp down. He refused to deny that he would consider standing for a by-election if the opportunity presented itself. And he wasted little time in putting the boot into Prime Minister David Cameron’s foreign policy – reminding everyone of his heavyweight credentials as a former Foreign Secretary. Both were vaguely reminiscent of an American presidential hopeful hinting and hinting they might run, before making the grand announcement.

The message seems to be a clear one. David Miliband has unfinished business with the Labour Party and with British politics.

There’s little doubt that elements within the Labour Party would welcome Mr Miliband back with open arms. In the aftermath of an election defeat far heavier than many predicted, many Labour minds will have drifted back to that evening in 2010 when Ed snatched the leadership from his brother and wondered if things might have gone very differently had the elder Miliband been in charge. There is a strong sense that David Miliband might be the man to challenge David Cameron and potentially lead Labour back to Downing Street.

The ship might have sailed again on Mr Miliband’s leadership ambitions for the time being. It seems inconceivable that he will up sticks, return to the UK, win a seat and claim the Labour leadership between now and the contest in September. But the door remains open to him if Labour commits to reviewing the leadership by 2018 with a view to picking a champion capable of rousting the Tories out of Number 10. Political commentators and political strategists have suggested this could provide an opportunity for one of the ‘next generation’ of the Party, such as Chuka Umunna (who’s apparently said ‘not right now’ rather than ‘never’). But it actually might be to the benefit of one of the old guard. Namely the former Foreign Secretary untainted with five years in opposition.

But selecting David Miliband as leader – either now or in 2017 or 2018 – would be a sign of weakness on the part of the Labour Party.

It would be a tacit acknowledgement that there is no-one on the Labour front or back benches that can beat the Conservatives – whether the PM come 2020 is David Cameron (as looks almost certain to be the case), George Osborne, or even BoJo. It would smack of a coronation rather than appointment. And it would prompt big questions for Labour to answer if it were to jump on the coattails of a leadership candidate who, at least to some, could be perceived to have taken his ball and gone home, only to re-emerge when it most suited him.

The questions about David Miliband and the Labour leadership are inevitable. Doubtless they will remain long after the leadership contest has ended, to plague whoever succeeds Ed Miliband. But the Labour Party would be ill-served by following such idle gossip. Its leadership contest will be fundamental to determining the Party’s long-term fate, as well as its prospects for 2020. It can ill-afford the problems associated with parachuting in a candidate.