Two strands of thought are emerging about David Miliband, the Labour leader that never was, who launched his report into youth unemployment on Monday.
The first is that he is a cowardly figure, willing to make coded but bitter attacks in the New Statesman against his brother, but unwilling to follow it up with action. The second is that he is a great wasted talent, a serious policy thinker who should be brought back into the front line, one way or another. (I should say, of course, that these two things are not mutually exclusive.)
The first was savagely articulated by Matthew Norman in Friday’s Telegraph. Under the title “The sniping and self-pitying of a truly feeble man”, Norman wrote:
In short, by all means let this snivelling poltroon of a fallen princeling stuff his pockets to his heart’s content, while popping along to the House of Commons every once in a while to sob into his nosegay over a crashing sense of entitlement denied.
The alternative view was voiced this morning in the same paper by Mary Riddell, who wrote:
Youth unemployment is a plague that will corrode society and infect generations still unborn. David Cameron has failed to address a catastrophe that David Miliband has the ability, will and time to begin to fix. Give him a job.
Part of the reason for such differing views on Miliband Snr’s role in British politics is that nobody seems to know what he wants to do.
He quit the shadow cabinet soon after his brother became leader ahead of him, since when he has maintained a low profile, focusing on two very different things: building up the Labour movement from the local grassroots and jetting around the world making speeches for large amounts of money.
Yesterday’s youth unemployment report marked his first high-profile return to British politics, so did it indicate a new willingness to engage once again with font-line politics? And could it herald an eventual return to the front benches?
This is what he told me yesterday:
I don’t know. We will have to see. I made the right decision to step back from frontline politics. It was a fair thing to do for Ed and for the party. It doesn’t mean I stopped thinking. In fact, there is even more need to think.
Leaving office is like the end of a love affair. Of course it is hard. The issues I cared about, I still care about.
But is he now more of a cross-bench figure, floating above the daily Punch and Judy show of Westminster politics? Definitely not, he says:
I am not becoming a cross-bencher! I am a Labour MP.
So if he loves frontbench politics, and still feels tribally connected to Labour, why not rejoin the shadow cabinet? He told broadcasters he didn’t want to stoke the “soap opera” that would surround his relationship with his brother and party leader. But when I put it to one friend of David that if there was genuine unity (which despite their differences, is surely not implausible), the soap opera would run out of steam eventually, he agreed. Watch this space.