Political sketch: A moral high ground at Leveson?

Ed Miliband puts the boot in.

When a politician inadvertently stumbles across the high moral ground you can be sure of two things, he'll be on his own and he'll set up camp immediately.

It is now set in Labour folklore that it's leader Ed Miliband finally came of age when he took the lead in calling time on 40 years of Murdoch mania.

And he was more than happy to mark the occasion by popping into the Leveson Inquiry to take his share of the credit for setting it up.

After Gordon's grumpy performance yesterday it was a whole new fresh-faced Labour leader who took the stand to promise better times ahead for the electorate.

There were some similarities as he, like the man before him, displayed little knowledge of the naughtiness that went before. He was on rocky ground only once, when asked about the boys on Gordon's Treasury team of which he'd been a member.

Yes, he was aware of the machinations of McBride and Whelan now safely in the wilderness but was not aware of any bad behaviour by one Ed Balls, now fully onside as Shadow Chancellor.

With that awkwardness quickly out of the way, it was the turn of interrogator Jay to produce the normal thumbscrews.

But having dispensed with the usual instruments of torture during a tour through the memory of another former Prime Minister John Major in the morning, it was an equally new and benevolent Jay who conducted the questioning.

(In the best traditions of people who know people who know people, Mr Jay paused to reveal that he heads up the Chambers where Mrs Miliband works as a barrister)

Happy to be out of the firing line, Ed confirmed he had chatted with members of the Murdoch evil empire at least 15 times in his first nine months of office and happily attended their summer party.

But all that changed after the Milly Dowler phone hacking revelations when he called for Rebekah Brooks to resign and an inquiry to be held.

It was "like crossing a Rubicon", said Ed, apparently believing there's more than one watery point of no return. He knew this would be seen as an "act of war" by News International but that not speaking out earlier had been a "failure of the establishment."

After cracking a couple of jokes with Jay and the Judge over the inquiry itself, which he said David Cameron had "graciously" involved him in, he then stuck it to the PM by promising the Labour Party would back any changes proposed by Leveson.

Dave, many of whose party share the Michael Gove "Rupert is magic" view of Murdoch, gets his chance to squirm on Thursday.

Earlier ex-Premier John Major - whose eight years in power are usually forgotten, squeezed as they were between Thatcherism and Blairism - popped out of retirement to put the lie to one of the few stories many remember about his reign.

Sun Editor Kelvin McKenzie had never sad he was going to "pour a bucket of shit" on him when the then PM decided to ring him on Black Wednesday.

Mr McKenzie has dined out for years on the tale and it was been often used to demonstrate the power of the Murdoch press over successive Governments.

But it was not true, said Mr Major, who had unfortunately waited 20 years to issue the denial. As his story unfolded it was clear that this particular bucket might have missed, but plenty of others didn't.

The former PM confessed to being "too sensitive" about the press - a sentiment so strongly denied by Gordon during his angry indifference on Monday.

As he joined Gordon heading back into history, both must have marvelled as Ed M called on Rupert to be forced to give up the Sun or The Times, never mind BSkyB.

"As is clear from this account I have not had a close relationship with News International since being Labour leader", said Ed.

Over to you Dave.

Photo: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.