Ed Miliband's decision to pose with the Sun's World Cup edition went down predictably badly among Labour MPs. The backlash was led by those from Merseyside constituencies, who have long boycotted the paper over its reporting of the Hillsborough disaster (into which a public inquest is ongoing). Steve Rotheram, the MP for Liverpool Walton, and others met with Miliband, who was reportedly "left in no doubt whatsoever about what they thought" and responded by saying he was "very, very sorry".
A furious Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, declared: "Like everybody in this city I am really hurt and offended by Ed Milliband’s support for The S*n ‘newspaper’ today. Such clear support for that publication at any time would be wrong but at such a sensitive time is deeply shocking."
A Labour spokesperson then said: "Ed Miliband was supporting England's bid to win the World Cup"
"He totally understands the anger that the people of Merseyside feel towards the Sun over Hillsborough and fully supports the demand for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough tragedy."
— The Sun (@TheSunNewspaper) June 12, 2014
After Rotheram tweeted that Miliband himself would make a public statement today, Labour issued an updated response, this time including the word "sorry". A spokesperson said:
Ed Miliband was promoting England's bid to win the World Cup and is proud to do so. But he understands the anger that is felt towards the Sun over Hillsborough by many people in Merseyside and he is sorry to those who feel offended
But while this goes further than the initial response, it's still a classic non-apology apology (of the kind that voters loathe): Miliband isn't sorry for the act itself, but sorry if anyone is offended.
The outcome is likely to please almost no one. Those appalled by what one Labour source called "that fucking photo" won't be placated by the non-apology, while those who initially defended Miliband (on the grounds that the leader of the opposition should seek good relations with the country's most-read paper) will now accuse him of lacking the courage of his convictions.
Myself, I thought the photo was a mistake. Few would have noticed if Miliband hadn't joined Cameron and Clegg in posing with paper and the well-publicised refusal of Mersey postmen to deliver the free edition (which was sent to every UK household) should have alerted him to the political dangers. While it would be unwise and gratuitous for Miliband to cut ties with the Sun entirely, he didn't need to do this. His stated aim might have been to promote "England's bid to win the World Cup" but he ended up looking like a salesman for Rupert Murdoch.
Among other things, the row has highlighted a clear disconnect between Miliband's communications operation and his political operation. I'm told by Labour sources that the latter knew nothing about the photograph before it appeared.
Miliband has often cited his decision to declare war on Murdoch and News Corp during the phone-hacking scandal as evidence of his bold leadership and his willingness to "break the rules". But just at the moment when the phone-hacking jury has retired to consider its verdict, with all that could entail, the Labour leader has been left looking like a man trying to have it all ways and painfully lacking in that most precious commodity in politics: authenticity.
Ed Miliband wants to be a "new" kind of politician, but he looked like a very old one yesterday.