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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.