The Indie’s Steve Richards, it seems like an age ago but in reality only last Thursday, defended yesterday’s Labour politicians from the easy criticism that they should have acted against Murdoch (as my business friends would say: Harry Hindsight – the greatest trader of them all). Oh how Blair and Brown bowed and scraped, some are saying. Rubbish. They saw the world as it was, and they prioritised getting and maintaining a Labour government over dealing with a longer-term and mostly intractable problem, the risible regulatory framework which exists around the British media. As had all the other governments before them. Perhaps they shouldn’t have: but it is equally plausible to say that the opportunity to take on the empire just didn’t present itself. It has now.
And the game is changing so quickly, hour by hour, that it is safe to say that no-one, on any side of the debate, really knows how it’s going to end. The astonishing thing is that it could really be anything along a very broad spectrum, starting at dirty tricks bringing down a Labour leader or other key protagonists, and finishing at the other end with the fall of a government. For this reason, the British media has gone into headless-chicken mode and is looking on impotently, predicting all sorts of things.
Ed Miliband has done – mostly – a first-class job in playing the hand he has happily been dealt. His Monday Commons performance against Tristram Hunt, for example, was well-planned and well-executed. Tony Blair said on Friday he has “shown leadership” and he is right.
Where the esteemed Mr Richards’ analysis falls down is in one phrase: “For the first time…Miliband could display authentic anger without fear of retribution from News International.”
So, you think News International is suddenly going to roll over and die after a few bad days in the press? Er, no. Not even after the situation, a week later, has considerably worsened and it seems at least possible that the Armageddon scenario for Murdoch, a meltdown of his empire, is a possibility, if by no means a clear one at this point.
Murdoch is not, metaphorically, dead. He is wounded. We should not forget that. We might all be happy for Murdoch to disappear (again, metaphorically, I hasten to add). But this is wishful thinking: Sun Tzu says “kill or capture the enemy before he kills you”. If Murdoch lives to tell the tale, be in no doubt that he will take his revenge.
And so to Labour’s plan of action. Should Miliband act differently out of fear of reprisal? No. That would be a shirking of an historic duty as leader of the only party really placed to do anything. He has risen to the challenge. Murdoch has, objectively, exercised too much power over our media for too long. Even sensible Tory democrats would admit that a monster has been created (look at how the Murdoch press has hounded that endangered species, the pro-European Tory).
Should he be cautious? Yes he should. In several ways, we may have already overplayed our hand. One is that the Wednesday attack didn’t look co-ordinated. It is difficult to believe that Miliband, Tom Watson and Chris Bryant had agreed a rigid line to take or, if they did, it was a damn fuzzy one. Secondly, both Ed, deliberately linking phone hacking to the BSkyB takeover, and Tom, going for James Murdoch, upped the stakes, so that it has become a battle to the death.
Finally, and a real cause for concern, we have made one strategic gamble which a number of previous governments have made: the whiter-than-white gamble. The precedents are not good. Major: Back to Basics; brown paper envelopes; fail. Blair: a new dawn; cash for honours; acquittal; score-draw. Brown: a new start after the culture of “superficiality and spin”; Donorgate, expenses; fail.
And this game is sure to get dirty. Dustbins, we can be sure, are being emptied as we speak. If News International find even the slightest evidence against Labour to link them with something with this scandal or even a completely different one, it will be ruthlessly exposed by them and all parties will be tarred with the same brush. All today’s hubris will vanish, and the only result will be abject cynicism with politicians, as happened with the expenses scandal.
So. The jury is genuinely out, no-one really knows what the endgame will be. Let’s just hope we are found to be squeaky, squeaky clean. And that our gamble pays off.
For what Ed has done is something brave, as Sam McCrory writes at e-Politix. He has, if you like, abandoned the over-cautious, please-everyone approach which has largely defined his leadership to date. This is a necessary condition of Labour getting elected. It is not a sufficient one.
Now, there are two kinds of brave. Brave, as in putting yourself on the line, making yourself a target for the greater good. Ghandi brave. Martin Luther King brave.
And there is another kind of brave: let’s call it Yes Minister brave. As in Sir Humphrey’s immortal “that would be a brave decision, Minister”, that is, reckless without meaning to be.
The problem is, we genuinely don’t know yet whether it is the first, a prescient reading of the tea-leaves that will result in a triumph for Labour, or the second, a last-chance saloon gamble. By the way, taking risks is not a bad thing - it’s part and parcel of politics – but you need to try and minimise them. It is now highly likely that the events of the last week will come to define this opposition period and his leadership of it.
At this point, Ed, we must cast aside criticism and be behind you, because what you are doing is the right thing. But, my God, we also need to hope and pray it works out.