The question of survival – to which there are two separate answers – pursued Ed Miliband through a dreadful week. Is he under such withering attack because (as Polly Toynbee of the Guardian put it) of ruthless “monstering by the press” – with the Mail, Telegraph and Express naturally joining the hunt?
Or is he the author of his own misfortunes? Answer on the monstering charge: yes, he’s getting a pretty raw deal. Answer on the misfortunes front: yes again.
Newspapers can’t destroy politicians or political parties – see the Times’s repeated efforts to degrade Nigel Farage and Ukip by bombing them with stinky stories. But they can catch a baleful mood, surf a savage tide, when they find one.
Miliband wasn’t a target last week because he sought to define his leadership, in part, by denouncing Rupert Murdoch over hacking, cover-ups and the seedy rest. If he’d been riding high in the polls, looking like the next prime minister, the Murdochs of this world would have been far more circumspect. Pending power breeds respect.
However, month after month, year after year, Labour has pottered along drawing only around one-third of support in the polls. The Labour leader in Scotland didn’t resign because she read something in the Sun. The YouGov poll putting Miliband below Nick Clegg in the popularity stakes conveyed a stark verdict. The New Statesman broadside, couched in the most brutal, personal terms, didn’t answer some Murdoch call. Miliband was, and is, vulnerable. And vulnerability in politics also destroys defences in a Westminster world where off-the-record chat makes big headlines.
Here was a “Bonfire night plot to oust Ed” leading the Mail. Here was a “Secret plan for end of Miliband” leading the Times. Here, inevitably, was a flood of columns and supporting yarns filling pages of Conservative-supporting papers from the Express to the Telegraph.
Of course, the papers that more naturally put Labour’s case didn’t join the pack, but the Independent led on Miliband’s problems and the Guardian gave them front-page treatment. There were clearly enough Labour MPs briefing behind the scenes – or in the case of the Mail and Ian Austin, MP for Dudley North, breaking cover to keep momentum rolling. The plots withered and splintered swiftly under examination. The possibility of Miliband’s departure seemed to vanish, too. But there’s no easy end to this particular storyline.
The Times appeared high-minded on Friday when it advised Labour MPs to “stay quiet” and “help make their leader the best he can be”. Simon Heffer in the Mail couched the same practical outcome in different terms: “Why Dave should pray Miliband doesn’t quit.”
Where will it all end? The difficulty for the Tory-supporting newspapers is that they also have their EU demons to deal with. Ukip in Rochester could turn the tide yet again.
The story on the doorstep seems to be weakness infecting all would-be parties of government – and that means muddying press loyalties too. What Miliband needs to get back on track seems very simple then; he needs a few successes. But where are the media critics, inside or outside his camp, prepared to give him that?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010