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13 June 2011

Why Miliband needed his “Bloody Sunday“

Sunday's headlines were awful. Ed Miliband should be a happy man.

By Dan Hodges

Yesterday’s terrible newspaper headlines were the best thing to happen to Ed Miliband since he was elected leader. On the surface it may have appeared the old adage of no such thing as bad publicity was being tested to destruction; brothers at war, big beasts on the rampage.

But headlines come and they go. And the medium and even long term implications of Ed’s “Bloody Sunday” may not turn out to be wholly negative.

For a start, it has nailed the “flat-earthers”. The cosy myth that beyond the Westminster bubble, Ed is loved, his party is loved and all that is required is for everyone to “keep calm and carry on” for Labour to prevail, has been exploded. The full extent of Labour’s challenge was brought into sharp, brutal relief over 250 PLP breakfast tables. Denial is no longer an option.

Good. Miliband’s failure to connect with the electorate is neither mysterious nor insoluble. The public have been told by the man who seeks their endorsement as prime minister it is too early to begin to set out his policy agenda; thanks, but he will stick with his blank page. They have also been told he believes it is unwise to set out a clear political agenda. To do so, at this stage, would represent a “false choice”. And they have been told he does not intend to define his personal agenda. Hugging huskies and riding around on the back of hoodies is not for him. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that having been told next to nothing about Miliband’s policy, political or personal programme over half of Labour voters don’t know what the man stands for.

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But at least now there is no place to hide. Everyone knows that inside the Westminster bubble, outside the Westminster bubble, and on the planet Zog, Miliband has yet to cut through with the electorate. And that means he will now have to adopt a new strategy to ensure he does. It may not work. It could be doomed to total, ignominious failure. But at least Miliband and the rest of us won’t die wondering.

The second positive is that the Labour Party will now rally round. It is a strange reflex held over from the darks days of the Blair/Brown danse macabre. Blair would stumble, the party would rise up, Brown would pounce. Then, as soon as the press pack scented blood, the party would recoil, Gordon would beat a hasty retreat, and Tony would breathe easy once more.

Ed will now have his own breathing space. The briefings will, temporarily, relent. The mutterings of discontent will turn to cheers; just wait for the manic waving of order papers that will follow Ed’s triumph at PMQs this Wednesday.

It will come at a good time. The run up to party conference was always going to be important, and his team had already planned to use the period to set out a clearer narrative to bind together themes such as the “squeezed middle” and “jilted generation”. Again, there is no guarantee they will seize the opportunity. But at least they will now have room to work with.

And there is one final, crucial positive. Yesterday marks the beginning of a slow political rapprochement between Cain and Abel. Don’t believe the anti-hype. The leadership election rent Ed and David Miliband asunder. Their split was no psychodrama. It was human, and harsh and real.

But both men are pragmatists. And on Sunday they saw, perhaps for the first time, the damage that would be done to both of them if they allowed their divisions to become characterised as Blair v Brown Round 2. In fairness, both men saw too the potential damage it would do to the party they both fought over.

So it will start with a briefing. About a lunch or a dinner. Maybe a family event. Then a photo. Possibly a joint appearance at a conference to address an issue of mutual concern. And it will culminate either in David’s departure from front-line politics, or, more likely, his return to the shadow cabinet.

The process will be primarily political. And the extent to which it will reflect a genuine rebuilding of their shattered personal relationship no one will truly know, probably not even the brothers themselves.

But the hatchet will be buried. There feud silenced. Blair and Brown’s own psychodrama confirmed as one for the ages.

And it doesn’t mean Ed will not ultimately be toppled. Nor that David will ultimately succeed him. But the two events will not be born out of a vendetta.

All for the price of a couple of bad headlines? I’m sure, on reflection, Ed would settle for that.