Labour keeps up its attack on the Daily Mail as cracks appear in the paper's defence

Deputy editor Jon Steafel admits that it was an "error of judgement" to feature a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave with the accompanying pun "a grave socialist".

The first cracks are beginning to appear in the Daily Mail's defence of its smearing of Ralph Miliband. The paper's deputy editor Jon Steafel made a rare public appearance on last night's Newsnight and conceded that it may have been an "error of judgement" to feature a picture of Miliband's grave with the accompanying pun "a grave socialist".

It was a redoubtable Alastair Campbell who led the charge on the programme, declaring: "You [Emily Maitlis] said the Mail is a formidable opponent. The Mail is not a formidable opponent because it's run by a bully and a coward and, like most cowards, he's a hypocrite as well. Paul Dacre hasn't got the guts to come on this programme and defend something that I know Jon Steafel believes is not defensible."

He added: "These people do not believe in genuine debate. If you do not conform to Paul Dacre's narrow, twisted view of the world as all of his employees, like Steafel, have to do, you get done in. All I say to all of the politicians in Britain is that once you accept you're dealing with a bully and a coward, you have absolutely nothing to fear from them."

Confident that the public's sympathies lie with Ed Miliband, Labour has kept up its attack on the paper. A spokesman said last night:

The deputy editor of the Daily Mail tonight admitted that it was an "error of judgement" to publish a picture of Ralph Miliband's grave accompanied by a crude pun. The newspaper should now apologise. 

We continue to believe that the article headlined "the man who hated Britain" and a subsequent article which described Ralph Miliband's legacy as "evil" were smears. The deputy editor of the Daily Mail showed tonight he could not justify either of them. 

Several commentators have pointed out, as Dan Hodges did when I appeared with him on BBC News last night, that Miliband's frequent references to his father invite scrutiny of his views. But while true, this does not give the Mail a licence to print lies about him ("the man who hated Britain").

In today's Guardian, Miliband's biographer Michael Newman, whose book was used as the basis for the attack, writes: "he devoted himself to building his life here, and this was cemented by his marriage in 1961 to Marion Kozak (another Jewish survivor, who had been hidden in Poland during the war), and the birth of their two sons later in the decade. Subsequently, the only significant amounts of time he spent abroad were in teaching in North American universities, where he went almost every year from the late 1970s until shortly before his death in 1994, and where he usually felt quite homesick.

"He clearly had great affection for Britain, despite all his criticisms he voiced about its class structure, and he would devote the majority of his writing and teaching to the analysis of British politics, particularly in such classic works as Parliamentary Socialism (1961) and Capitalist Democracy in Britain (1982). And his own periodic political activity was also in a British context."

To suggest that Ed Miliband relishes this fight for political reasons, as some have done, is absurd. He is a son defending his father from a vile and hurtful attack. But the row has become a demonstration of the "leadership and character" he spoke of in his speech last week. While too often politicians have remained silent when they and their families have been smeared, Miliband has chosen to confront Dacre.

The Mail gave the game away in its editorial yesterday when it referred to Miliband's support for a new form of media regulation. But the irony is that it is smears like the Mail's that, more than anything, undermine the cause of a free press.

Ed Miliband speaks during a Q&A with party members at the Labour conference in Brighton last week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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