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If Andy Burnham doesn't fix his relationship with the Sun, he's dead meat

I've interviewed Andy Burnham. He's a great guy, but if he doesn't fix his relationship with the Sun, he's doomed, says broadcaster Tom Latchem.

Andy Burnham shook my hand ahead of our interview with a grip firmer than most other politicians I’ve met.  He has an easy charm and had no difficulty finding common ground as we discussed two of my favourite topics – mid-90s indie music and the prospect of my football team, AFC Bournemouth, managing to stay in the Premier League.

He also seemed more open and relaxed in his own skin than a lot of MPs, but perhaps more notably carried with him none of the pomposity of many senior politicians. The prospective Labour leader strikes me as a decent, principled man – which is perhaps unsurprising, given his assiduous work with Hillsborough families to bring about the inquiry that they so deserved.

Burnham is a proud Liverpudlian who was directly affected by that awful day in Sheffield in 1989. An Everton fan, he was at the other FA Cup semi-final but returned to Liverpool to speak to his traumatised friends who witnessed first-hand the horror that took place in Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. He speaks with genuine emotion about his memories of the time.

He has since worked tirelessly alongside the bereaved families on the Justice for the 96 campaign, understandably forging a close bond. And so it would hardly be surprising if he felt a lingering resentment towards the paper that falsely accused Liverpool fans of carrying out terrible acts as the disaster unfolded.

As part of an hour long interview with Burnham on FUBAR Radio, to be aired on Tuesday from 10am, I asked him whether the failure at the last election of his friend and potential predecessor Ed Milliband was due in part to his unhealthy relationship with the Mail and the Sun – who monstered him on an almost daily basis in run-up to Polling Day. Burnham didn’t seem, explicitly at least, to acknowledge it.

As a former tabloid journalist myself, and one who remains heavily involved in that world, I told him in no uncertain terms that staying on the right side of the Sun is crucial if you are to have any chance of political success. He may not say it out loud, but Burnham knows it too. 

Which is why it must be all the more concerning for him that, not only is the Sun not on his side, it is actively attacking him after he turned down an interview request. Last week it took pot-shot after pot-shot, even holding up Burnham’s travel expenses as an example of how he was a ‘tightwad’.

Of all the questions I asked in wide-ranging interview that covered the leadership race and his plans should he win, the Iraq War (“my biggest regret in politics”) and his devotion to Everton (“I will never miss a match – even if I am Prime Minister”), The Sun highlighted his failure to identify which soap legend had their funeral this week, as a knock to his ‘man of the people’ record.

I don’t think him not watching Corrie reveals an awful lot – Burnham may of course be an EastEnders man. But what the Sun’s reaction to him not knowing about Deidre does show, as he aims to win the Labour leadership race, and then become Prime Minster, is that his principles and relationship with the press could be his downfall. Let’s not forget that Tony Blair – who for years played the Sun brilliantly– campaigned to Free the Weatherfield One, when Deirdre was behind bars back in 1998.
Many of the bereaved Hillsborough families, and probably the friends Burnham is proud to say he still regularly drinks with back home on Merseyside, would happily see ‘The Scum’ consigned to history like its sister paper the News of the World, and its owner Rupert Murdoch damned to hell for eternity.    

And that leaves Burnham in a rather sticky situation. Because he cannot escape the brutal truth that, if he wants to win back the many thousands of its former voters who abandoned Labour in favour of Ukip in May, he will inevitably need some support from the Sun.
On air Burnham puts a brave face on his recent treatment at the hands of the redtop, making conciliatory noises about the importance of “talking to everyone” while at the same time not doing anything to upset the families of the JFT96 campaign while the inquiry is on-going.

But in private, as we talked before about the tough week he had faced, it is clear he has been stung by the coverage and seems conflicted. Until Labour finally elects its next leader in September, the Sun’s knocking coverage is probably not too big a problem for Burnham. But if he does win the leadership race, it is a conflict he will somehow need to overcome.

 It’s questionable whether it's “The Sun Wot Won It”, as the paper has a history of backing the winning horse. And it is of course possible to succeed in the face of opposition in the press.

But unless Burnham can navigate an acceptable compromise with the Hillsborough families he is deeply loyal to and the Sun, his messages about championing the NHS and delivering a fairer austerity plan may never get a fair hearing in Britain’s biggest newspaper.

 

Tom Latchem is a journalist and broadcaster who presents the Tuesday morning show on FUBAR Radio. Listen to the interview on the station on Tuesday from 10am.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.