Ed Miliband struggles to put rift stories behind him

"Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense."

This morning's Independent on Sunday has two Father's Day gifts for dad of two, Ed Miliband: one welcome, the other not.

The first is a bullish interview with the Labour leader -- "No regrets. No crisis. Ed Miliband hits back". The second is a ComRes poll which has Labour neck-and-neck* with the Tories and, more worryingly, gives Miliband a net approval rating of -27 when respondents are asked if he is "turning out to be a good leader for the Labour Party". The latter figure is down ten points on a month ago.

The interview offers Miliband a chance to respond to some of the claims made in a new biography "ED: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader" by James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan, my former and present colleagues respectively.

One of the more explosive passages of the book suggests that while Ed Miliband recalls being open and honest about his intention to stand for leadership 13 months ago, David Miliband remembers things somewhat differently. Asked about these inconsistencies, Ed Miliband tells the IoS:

I'm not going to get into the detail of this. What we both agree on is that we talked before both our candidacies were declared and talked to him about the position too and we're both on the same page on that.

Yet it is in the detail where you will find the root of the unease between the two. As Mehdi writes in this week's New Statesman, drawing on his book:

Ed says he went to David's home in Primrose Hill, north London, on the evening of 12 May ... to inform him of his own decision to stand. In a story that Ed has since repeated to friends and in interviews, he says David was polite and understanding. "I'd rather you didn't run," David is said to have remarked. "I'd rather have a campaign where my brother is supporting me, if I'm really honest." But he then added: "I don't want me to be the reason you don't stand, so I think you should do it.

Or did he? Today, neither David nor Ed can agree on when or even if this crucial meeting occurred. David is emphatic there was no such meeting: his younger brother did not set foot in his house that week.

Another assertion -- that the brothers' wives Justine and Louise fell out over the leadership contest -- is dismissed as:

Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense. David and Louise were at our wedding a few weeks ago, and we had a great day. It was great that they were there and enjoyed themselves.

(As the IoS's Jane Merrick points out, however, David and Louise didn't attend the North London party that followed the ceremony.)

Elsewhere this morning there is no shortage of advice for the younger Miliband. Martin Ivens, writing in the Sunday Times (£), argues that Labour need to fight the coalition from the centre where they would represent a far more threatening foe than from the left. He writes:

The perverse effect of [the unions'] left-wing militancy has been to unite Cameron's and Clegg's warring troops against a common enemy. The Liberal Democrats owe the unions nothing -- they have never donated to the party's coffers -- and despise them as political dinosaurs. The Conservatives, wobbling like jellies over health, have every reason to show some backbone in a popular cause.

Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona poses the following questions:

Was its engagement with New Labour, to borrow Blair's own language, "passionate" or merely "tactical"? Is Ed Miliband right to believe that you can shift the centre ground of politics when you are in Opposition? And is his renunciation of New Labour a step into the past or a handshake with the future?

*A YouGov/Sunday Times poll has better news for Labour (on 42 per cent), a five point lead of the Conservatives (37 per cent). The Liberal Democrats are back on 10 per cent.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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.