The Miliband brothers are many things: confident, articulate, canny political operators, two men in their prime who are hungry for power and have brains the size of small moons. Even their detractors admit they are a formidable force on the Labour scene, with one or other of them most likely to be crowned party leader in a few months' time.
Just one problem: they've both spent way too long in and around the Westminster village to be entirely normal. Their voices sound a bit weird, as if they've got something stuck in their throats; their eyes boggle when they get excited; and they see nothing unusual in launching into passionate monologues about social markets.
The younger brother, Ed, is widely regarded as the less strange of the two. (His supporters in the leadership contest have been spotted sporting T-shirts with the slogan "He's human".) Yet even he admits he's a geek. "I'm not one of these people who's going to pretend they were ever cool. Me cool? Definitely not. I mean, come off it!" he says, looking incredulous.
|The battle of the Miliband brothers: Ed (left) and David
The way he paints it, he has always been nerdy. He and his brother were never part of the in-crowd at school: "I am not sure either of us was popular. School was about looking after yourself despite being weedy. You would have to take care not to get beaten up in the classroom."
This is unusual political positioning for a wannabe party leader. But Miliband E, as he's now known at Westminster, to distinguish him from Miliband D, is just warming up. Indeed, he seems quite proud of being square, gaily revealing that his achingly hip Labour colleague Oona King, who went to the same school and was his contemporary, was far too cool to be seen with him.
"I was at a fringe meeting a while back and I told them I was at school with Oona King but she was far too cool to hang around with me. Andy Burnham piped up from the back of the audience, " Yeah, and she still is!" Miliband says, guffawing. "Ah, I love Andy."
Burnham, the former health secretary is one of four rivals with whom Miliband E is competing for the party leadership. The others are his older brother, the former foreign secretary; Ed Balls, the former schools secretary; and the backbencher Diane Abbott. The voting system is mind-bendingly complex, with ballots involving MPs, MEPs, trade union members and grassroots activists. Much will hinge on second preferences. The system, is so complicated that even Labour anoraks struggle to predict how it will pan out, but there is a growing sense that the Milibands are unbeatable.
While David is the Establishment figure, with the backing of party grandees including Tony Blair and Tessa Jowell, Ed is increasingly popular in the party. There is speculation that, in what would be a significant coup, two of the biggest trade unions, Unison and Unite, could swing behind him: a protégé of Gordon Brown, Miliband E is more of a natural in front of a trade union audience than his Blairite brother.
In an otherwise deathly dull contest the spectacle of the siblings slogging it out for the top job has provided a modicum of entertainment. Everyone is dying to see them come to blows. Sadly, they're far too smart -- and too close -- for that. It's all been disappointingly civilized so far, but it's still quite weird. For a start, neither of them can escape being asked why he is a better candidate than his sibling, a question that is almost impossible to answer without a perceived slight.
"Definitely, it is odd," says Miliband E, with feeling. "But it's become the new normal. It's funny -- I'm seeing more of my brother at the moment than Justine (Thornton, his girlfriend) and my son."
So why is he better than David, who has run one of the most important Whitehall departments and is far more experienced, with four more years as an MP under his belt?
"I am someone who can better turn the page form the past," he says vaguely, presumably meaning that his older brother, a cabinet minister under Blair and Brown, is more closely associated in voters' minds with the administration they have just kicked out of office.
He mutters something about being able to "connect with the public" - a reference to his older brother's more painfully evident lack of the common touch. The older Miliband has a reputation for being offhand - over the years he seems to have accidentally offended a lot of colleagues -- whereas Ed is affable and engaging.
While Miliband D has been planning to run for the leadership since as long ago as 2007, when Blair tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to stand against Brown, Miliband E claims he decided to throw his hat into the ring only after the election. He says he never had a "grand plan" for his career and made up his mind to stand only after being pressed by colleagues.
Brought up in Primrose Hill, north London, sons of the Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband and his wife Marion, herself a political intellectual, the boys were at the same school, Haverstock comprehensive, although they were five years apart. Did David ever beat Ed up when they were little? "Oooh, we were both too weedy for that," he said.
The brothers had an intensely political upbringing: their four storey childhood home, where David still lives (Ed just round the corner) was a salon for radical-chic lefties such as Traiq Ali and Joe Slovo, the South African Communist party leader. Ken Livingstone, who later became mayor of London, was also a visitor.
They were serious little boys who eagerly joined in the philosophical debate over dinner: "We were not rebellious kids, I think partly a consequence of the fact that we had older parents. Dad was 45 when I was born and he had a heart attack when I was three or four. Particularly towards the end of his life, he was not a well person."
Miliband E claims neither of his parents had a favourite, showing the two of them "equal love." He adds: "The other thing they were good at doing was taking us seriously as kids. We were quite political. Some people would say, 'You're 14 years old -- you can't possibly understand this. Go and play with your Tonka toys.' My parents never did that. I think that explains quite a lot (about us)."
The brother's parents, both Jewish, came originally from Poland, but neither David nor Ed is religious. All the same, Miliband E says Jewishness "feels like an important part of my identity". He seems a bit vague about it, saying something about it "expressing itself in the importance of family."
Unlike his older brother he is unmarried, although he has a one-year-old son and another baby on the way. He hints he and Justine will tie the knot some day although there's no sense of urgency.
To win the party leadership, of course, he needs dazzling ideas. His big themes are reshaping the economy; the future of the banks; Britain's culture of long working hours; and the power of the state. "It's become overbearing," he says, admitting the Labour administration did much to create that situation. He never really believed in ID cards, he says; nor in the widespread use of police stop-and-search powers.
I'm struggling to feel wowed by any of this policy stuff, but then all the leadership contenders face a near-impossible task getting anyone excited about their ideas. The reality is that the caravan has moved on, the coalition still too shiny and new for the opposition to make much impact, whoever is at the helm.
There are long hot months ahead. But autumn Labour hopes that David Cameron's and Nick Clegg's summer romance may be starting to turn sour - and one of the Miliband brothers will be ready to strike.
Courtesy the Sunday Times, Britain