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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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.