Deride Miliband for anything you like, but not his looks

The shabby treatment of the Labour leader opens the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage

Is Ed Miliband too ugly to be prime minister? Or leader of the opposition? It's a question that has been captivating entirely no-one since John Humphrys, clearly the world's most handsome and desirable man, suggested the younger Miliband was as rough as a robber's dog. And yet, it pops up again. The Sunday Times commissioned a poll to ask the Great British Public what they thought.

Astoundingly, the majority did not reply with "I don't care either way - why are you asking me this? Is this really all you've got, at a time when our economies are circling the drain? Pointless tittle-tattle about the attractiveness or otherwise of leaders of the opposition? I remember when the Sunday Times stood for something, some stray fragment of journalistic integrity, a concept that long seems to have passed you by." Or at least, if they did, their barbed retorts have not been recorded by the psephologists in great detail on this occasion.

Is this what it's come to? Can we only judge our politicians based on whether they are as startlingly delicious as John Humphrys - unarguably the world's most gorgeously enticing man - or fall short of his high standards? Well, apparently it has. Forget Ed Miliband's policies; forget his presentation; forget anything he might say, or do. Is he pretty enough to be PM?

My reaction to this is the kind of thing that makes political correspondents, were they ever to chance upon this page while chortling away about a terrifically clever pun one of their sources told them over an enormous subsidised lunch, shake their heads. Oh but this is the cut and thrust, they would say, were they ever accidentally to happen upon these words. This is all part of the knockabout fun that is the world of politics.

I'm all for making fun of people, whether it's deserved or not. Some of the world's most brilliant and successful political leaders have been disgustingly, repulsively unattractive. You'd hardly want a kiss on the lips from FDR, or Churchill's baby-like face looming over and gurning at you during a moment of passion. Must we want to have sex with people, or consider them attractive, in order to believe in what they say?

Of course, it could get even worse in the near future. Imagine what could happen if Labour's Yvette Cooper, or any other bright and intelligent female politician, managed to become leader of their party. What then? It could all become a pungent mess of whether we could consider them as PILFs - politicians we'd like to fuck - rather than people with progressive policies.

In one sense, then, the shabby treatment of Ed Miliband over this pointless piffling issue opens up the door to more of this kind of unedifying garbage in the future. You can see with the fuss made over Louise Mensch's looks that this kind of thing is just waiting to be unleashed - and it will probably be a lot worse for whichever unlucky female takes over at the top of a political party in the future than it is now for Ed.

Not that that's any consolation. Deride Ed for anything you like - his use of the word 'atmos', for example, which made me cry blood into a bucket last week - but not for how pretty he is naturally. Despite all the attempts to make it so, this isn't a bloody playground. Not yet. Even the stunningly beautiful John Humphrys cannot convince me of that.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.