David Miliband changes tune on Megrahi release

The Mole: Labour leader contenders will do anything to distance themselves from Gordon Brown

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:17 ON Tue 20 Jul 2010

Has David Miliband just made his first big error in the race for the Labour leadership - or was it a smart move to distance himself from Gordon Brown?

As the candidate to beat, David has kept a low-ish profile in recent weeks, allowing his younger brother Ed Miliband and the third contender Ed Balls (apologies to fans of Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott, but neither stands a chance) to make the running.

Until now.

He has given an interview to today's Herald, the Scottish paper that makes a speciality of covering the Lockerbie-Megrahi saga, in which he has dramatically changed his position on last year's release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

When Labour were in power, and David Miliband was Foreign Secretary, he mainly avoided commenting on the rights or wrongs of Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds.

However, he did say in a Commons statement in October, in reaction to the row over Megrahi's release, that British interests "would be damaged, perhaps badly, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than Libya".

That was then, and this in now. Today he sounds more like David Cameron on the subject. Asked by the Herald if it was a mistake to release Megrahi, Miliband said: "It was clearly wrong because it was done on the basis that he had less than three months to live and it's now 11 months on."

He went on: "Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds and, as I understand it, that depends on him having less than three months to live, so something has gone badly wrong."

The ruling SNP has reacted quickly, a source in the party telling the Herald: "This ludicrous about-turn by Miliband will damage his credibility and do him absolutely no good, either in his party or anywhere else."

Hmmmm...You can understand the SNP man's reaction, but is he right?

In the Mole's view, one of the key tasks of all of the leadership contenders is to distance themselves as much as possible from the failures of the Brown regime.

Miliband needed to put clear water between his thoughts on the subject and those of Brown, who always made it clear that he "respected" MacAskill's decision to release Megrahi.

It is hard to judge at the moment how far the US senate will get with its hearing next week on the Megrahi debacle. But whatever the facts available, it is hard to believe that if the British government had really wanted Megrahi to remain in jail, it could not have stopped MacAskill sending him home.

If the Brown government stood by and let it happen, with an eye to Libyan oil and trade deals, then Miliband is probably wise to divorce himself from the episode, even at the risk of being called a turncoat. ·