Why Miliband needed his "Bloody Sunday"

Sunday's headlines were awful. Ed Miliband should be a happy man.

Yesterday's terrible newspaper headlines were the best thing to happen to Ed Miliband since he was elected leader. On the surface it may have appeared the old adage of no such thing as bad publicity was being tested to destruction; brothers at war, big beasts on the rampage.

But headlines come and they go. And the medium and even long term implications of Ed's "Bloody Sunday" may not turn out to be wholly negative.

For a start, it has nailed the "flat-earthers". The cosy myth that beyond the Westminster bubble, Ed is loved, his party is loved and all that is required is for everyone to "keep calm and carry on" for Labour to prevail, has been exploded. The full extent of Labour's challenge was brought into sharp, brutal relief over 250 PLP breakfast tables. Denial is no longer an option.

Good. Miliband's failure to connect with the electorate is neither mysterious nor insoluble. The public have been told by the man who seeks their endorsement as prime minister it is too early to begin to set out his policy agenda; thanks, but he will stick with his blank page. They have also been told he believes it is unwise to set out a clear political agenda. To do so, at this stage, would represent a "false choice". And they have been told he does not intend to define his personal agenda. Hugging huskies and riding around on the back of hoodies is not for him. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that having been told next to nothing about Miliband's policy, political or personal programme over half of Labour voters don't know what the man stands for.

But at least now there is no place to hide. Everyone knows that inside the Westminster bubble, outside the Westminster bubble, and on the planet Zog, Miliband has yet to cut through with the electorate. And that means he will now have to adopt a new strategy to ensure he does. It may not work. It could be doomed to total, ignominious failure. But at least Miliband and the rest of us won't die wondering.

The second positive is that the Labour Party will now rally round. It is a strange reflex held over from the darks days of the Blair/Brown danse macabre. Blair would stumble, the party would rise up, Brown would pounce. Then, as soon as the press pack scented blood, the party would recoil, Gordon would beat a hasty retreat, and Tony would breathe easy once more.

Ed will now have his own breathing space. The briefings will, temporarily, relent. The mutterings of discontent will turn to cheers; just wait for the manic waving of order papers that will follow Ed's triumph at PMQs this Wednesday.

It will come at a good time. The run up to party conference was always going to be important, and his team had already planned to use the period to set out a clearer narrative to bind together themes such as the "squeezed middle" and "jilted generation". Again, there is no guarantee they will seize the opportunity. But at least they will now have room to work with.

And there is one final, crucial positive. Yesterday marks the beginning of a slow political rapprochement between Cain and Abel. Don't believe the anti-hype. The leadership election rent Ed and David Miliband asunder. Their split was no psychodrama. It was human, and harsh and real.

But both men are pragmatists. And on Sunday they saw, perhaps for the first time, the damage that would be done to both of them if they allowed their divisions to become characterised as Blair v Brown Round 2. In fairness, both men saw too the potential damage it would do to the party they both fought over.

So it will start with a briefing. About a lunch or a dinner. Maybe a family event. Then a photo. Possibly a joint appearance at a conference to address an issue of mutual concern. And it will culminate either in David's departure from front-line politics, or, more likely, his return to the shadow cabinet.

The process will be primarily political. And the extent to which it will reflect a genuine rebuilding of their shattered personal relationship no one will truly know, probably not even the brothers themselves.

But the hatchet will be buried. There feud silenced. Blair and Brown's own psychodrama confirmed as one for the ages.

And it doesn't mean Ed will not ultimately be toppled. Nor that David will ultimately succeed him. But the two events will not be born out of a vendetta.

All for the price of a couple of bad headlines? I'm sure, on reflection, Ed would settle for that.

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Why Boris Johnson is Theresa May's biggest Brexit liability

The Foreign secretary is loved by Eurosceptics and detested by EU negotiators. 

Boris Johnson is a joke in Brussels but not the funny kind. He is seen as the liar who tricked Britain into leaving the European Union.

Since his election as a MEP in 1999, Nigel Farage has sucked EU money into his campaign to get the UK out of the EU. But the contempt reserved for Boris is of a different order - because he should have known better.

Johnson has impeccable European pedigree. His father Stanley was an MEP and influential European Commission official. Unsurprisingly, Stanley is a Remainer as is Johnson’s brother Jo.  

The fury reserved for Johnson and his betrayal is of a particularly bitter vintage. Johnson was educated in the European School of Brussels in the leafy and well-heeled suburb of Uccle, where, years later, Nick Clegg lived when he was a MEP.

The contempt stems from his time as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. Fake news is now big news. Many in the self-styled “capital of Europe” believe Boris pioneered it.

Johnson was an imaginative reporter. Many still discuss his exclusive about the planned dynamiting of the European Commission. The Berlaymont headquarters stands untouched to this day.

Rival British hacks would receive regular bollockings from irate editors furious to have been beaten to another Boris scoop. They weren’t interested in whether this meant embroidering the truth. 

Johnson invented a uniquely British genre of journalism – the Brussels-basher. It follows a clear template.

Something everyday and faintly ridiculous, like condoms or bananas, fall victim to meddling Brussels bureaucrats. 

The European Commission eventually set up a “Euromyth”website to explode the pervasive belief that Brussels wanted you to eat straight bananas.  Unsurprisingly, it made no difference. Commission staff now insist on being called "European civil servants" rather than bureaucrats.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was so worried about negative headlines that he stalled energy efficiency legislation until after the referendum.

When he shelved sensible laws to restrict excessive energy consumption on toasters and hairdryers, he was rewarded with a Hero of the Week award by the German tabloid Bild, which had developed a taste for Boris-style hackery.  

Many in Brussels draw a direct line from Johnson’s stories to the growing Eurosceptism in the Conservatives, and from that to Ukip, and ultimately Brexit.

To make matters worse, Johnson was the star of the Brexit campaign. His performance confirmed the view of him as an opportunistic charlatan.

The infamous £350m a week bus caused outrage in Brussels, but not as much as what Boris did next.

He compared the EU to Adolf Hitler. Boris knows better than most how offensive that is to the many European politicians who believe that the EU has solidified peace on the continent. 

European Council President Donald Tusk was furious. “When I hear the EU being compared to the plans and projects of Adolf Hitler I cannot remain silent,” said Tusk, a Pole.

“Boris Johnson crossed the boundaries of a rational discourse, demonstrating political amnesia,” he declared, and added there was “no excuse for this dangerous blackout”. It was the first time a leading EU figure had intervened in the referendum campaign.

After the vote for Brexit and his failed tilt at the premiership, Johnson was appointed foreign secretary, to widespread disbelief.

When the news broke, I received a text message from my Italian editor. It read: “Your country has gone mad.” It was the first of many similar messages from the Brussels press pack. 

“You know he told a lot of lies to the British people and now it is him who has his back against the wall,” France’s foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Johnson “outrageous”.

Could Johnson jeopardise the Brexit negotiations?  He can damage them. In November, he was ridiculed by European ministers after telling Italy at a Brussels meeting that it would have to offer tariff-free trade to sell prosecco to the UK.

European Union chiefs moved earlier this week to quell fears they would punish Britain for Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May had threatened to lure investment away from the EU by slashing corporation tax rates in her speech last week.

Juncker and Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, which will chair the first Brexit negotiations, both insisted they was no desire to impose a “punitive deal” on the UK. Donald Tusk compared May’s speech and its “warm words” to Churchill. 

An uneasy peace seemed to have been secured. Enter Boris. 

Asked about comments made by a French aide to President Francois Hollande, he said, "If Monsieur Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape, rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don't think that is the way forward.”

The European Parliament will have a vote, and effective veto, on the final Brexit settlement. Its chief negotiator Guy Verhofstadt lashed out at Johnson.

“Yet more abhorrent and deeply unhelpful comments from Boris Johnson which PM May should condemn,” he tweeted.

Downing Street wasn’t listening. A spokeswoman said, “There is not a government policy of not talking about the war.”

And just as quickly as it broke out, the new peace was left looking as shaky as ever. 

 

James Crisp is a Brussels-based journalist who is the news editor of EurActiv.com