ALL eyes in British politics last week were on David Miliband to see if the former Foreign Secretary would take an early bath after being beaten in the race for the leadership of the Labour Party by his younger brother Ed. In the event, Miliband the Elder did just that, thus bringing to an untimely end the career of one of the most adroit figures on the Left of UK politics since the departure of Tony Blair. (Not a very crowded field, admittedly.)
Behind the scenes, a smaller, but equally intriguing, drama was being played out. Ed Miliband happens to be the first leader of a major party in Britain to be living in sin, as they used to say in the good old days, with a woman who is not his wife.
What's more, they have a child together, 16-month-old Daniel, and another on the way before Christmas. Cue a slew of over-excited headlines. It all looked terribly passe when viewed from this side of the Irish Sea. Unmarried politicians? Pah. Bertie Ahern and Celia Larkin were out and proud about their informal relationship for years. We didn't bat an eyelid over here.
Nor would most ordinary Brits, probably, if given half a chance. But the journalists just won't let this one go, especially when it subsequently emerged that Ed Miliband wasn't named as the father on his son's birth certificate. There was no suggestion he isn't the biological father, simply that he hadn't got around to signing on the dotted line yet, or didn't consider it important enough to make space in his diary.
It was curious, certainly, because most parents take such matters quite seriously, and if you're not married to the mother of your children and don't get your name down in black and white, then a father has shockingly few rights under the law; but with Ed promising to catch up on the paperwork once his second child put in an appearance, it wasn't likely to cause an electoral earthquake.
You can bet your bottom dollar that he will, too, now that the beady eyes of the country's scribblers will be trained on his every move.
It would be terrific if Ed Miliband had had the chutzpah to say: "To hell with the lot of you, I'm not doing it. Stick that in your weekly column and smoke it!"
Unmarried parents everywhere were urging him on to do it, and stand to be bitterly disappointed when he doesn't.
Because of course he won't, for the same reason that he hasn't got married to environmental barrister (whatever that is) Justine Thornton during their five years together. Because being a politician comes first and always will.
That sentimental hooey which former Prime Minister Gordon Brown came out with when leaving Downing Street about how being a father was the most important job of all -- that's just what you say when you've lost. A broken David Miliband waffled in much the same way about his own wife and two adopted sons when he announced his departure from the Labour front bench last week. Ed will have plenty of time for the same act when his own downfall inevitably comes.
In the meantime, there are elections to be won, which is why there are already rumours that a tying of the knot between Ed and Justine may be on the cards sooner rather than later. Most voters couldn't care less, but what if there were a few who did? What if they could swing the vote in a crucial marginal? Why take the risk? Better start printing those invitations.
What's weird is that the move is urged on Miliband by those who say he is dishonouring the institution of marriage by not being part of it, when it is marrying for political convenience which would be the ultimate disrespect.
It's not his morals that should cause alarm so much as this tawdry air of opportunism. He's already done the classic metropolitan elite thing of sounding, in the past, more bullish about his unmarried status in left-wing publications than he has since in newspapers with a more right-wing bias -- echoing Tony Blair's excruciating faux pas as Prime Minister when he was
asked by the local paper in his working-class North East constituency what his favourite meal was and answered fish and chips, while telling a similar publication in the cosmopolitan North London district where he actually lived that it was rocket and walnut salad. Didn't Red Ed learn the lesson? Liars need to be consistent.
Miliband then had to compound the offence by coming out with some tosh about how he hadn't got around to marriage yet because politics had "got in the way", and he'd been too busy, first with the Copenhagen climate change summit, then with the general election, then the Labour leadership contest. As lame excuses go, that one was a doozy.
"If anyone here knows just impediment why these two people should not be joined together in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace."
"Yes -- the ice caps are melting!"
It'd be easier to have respect for him if he just told journalists to mind their own business. If what he said about being too busy was true, after all, it follows that he's going to have even less time on his hands now that he's leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. Then he wouldn't have to endure such cringe-making episodes as the interview on ITV's breakfast show, Daybreak, last week where the presenter invited him to propose to his partner live on air. Even political opportunists have to draw the line somewhere. The more Ed Miliband throws out hints about how he's just waiting for the right moment, however, the more he's inviting media speculation on when that will be.
Or perhaps he'd secretly prefer that, since it distracts attention from his outdated 'tax the rich and pamper the trade unions' tendencies, and the strange ideological deadness behind his eyes that it's possible to glimpse when he forgets to hide it. You can't have it both ways.
Modern society may be more than liberal and funky enough not to care about the personal lives of its leaders, but the real question is why a society which has thrown off such shackles of old thinking would want to join Red Ed back in the socialist time machine.