The 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s funeral this weekend was a reminder that mavericks can not only succeed in politics but that they can occasionally be geniuses. Churchill consumed copious amounts of Pol Roger and forests of cigars, worked from bed, insisted on three-hour lunches pretty much every day, wrote 50 books, was Prime Minister twice and held a hat full of ministerial posts over nearly half a century. He was also the master of the withering one-liner (my favourite: “I may be drunk Madam, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly). Oh, and he saved Western civilisation from the Nazis.
So it is in a spirit of some generosity that I approach the revelations in the Mail on Sunday over the past three weeks about the private habits of Miliband minor. New readers can start here. The former elected Labour mayor of Doncaster, Martin Winter, has written a book, serialised in the newspaper, which covers the nine and half weeks Ed Miliband lodged with him and his family in the spring of 2005 when, at the prompting of Gordon Brown, Winter was ensuring that the now Labour leader was selected as the candidate for the safe seat of Doncaster North. Much of the book is about local and national politics, but it is the frequently eye-watering stuff about young Ed’s mishaps while glad-handing local party members that stick in the memory.
Think Frank Spencer meets Yes Minister – or for younger readers Mr Bean meets The Thick of It. Here are just some of the blunders that drove Winter and his partner Carolyne Hunter, the mother of his three children and a life-long Labour activist, to distraction: (Miliband, aged 35 at the time, spent about five weeks in Winter’s house in Doncaster and another four weeks in a property rented nearby)
- Miliband cannot open the front door of Winter’s house and leave the building. Daughter Marcey aged 10 has to show him how.
- Miliband cannot remember his code name Jim, given to him to throw potential political enemies off the scent.
- Miliband sets fire to the office carpet, nearly passes out from the fumes and has to be rescued by Winter, ending up sprawled on the lawn.
- Miliband eventually buys a Muslim prayer mat costing about £25 to cover up the damaged carpet.
- Miliband returns home with his jacket torn. He has been bitten by the Staffordshire bull terrier Tyson owned by the Labour MP he is seeking to replace. Miliband bent down to pat the dog only for it to sink his teeth into the cuff of his jacket. Miliband reacted by swinging the dog round in circles. But it hangs on, ripping the sleeve.
- Winter’s kids con £400 out of Miliband for stuffing envelopes.
- Miliband wrecks the office printer, which is replaced at a cost of nearly £1000. He makes no effort to pay the bill.
- Miliband never says thank you by taking Winter and Carolyne out for dinner.
- Miliband asks Carolyne if she thinks David Miliband is better looking than him. Ed says that David is more athletic than him. Ed had problems with his feet when young.
- In 2007 Doncaster is hit by floods. Ed cannot row a dinghy and thinks the trillions of gallons of floodwater could be removed by a fleet of oil tanker lorries.
- Miliband considers asking Prince Charles for a lift in his helicopter.
- Miliband locks himself in his rented house when he is about to meet Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He climbs out through a window, scratches his leg and finds himself stuck in the back garden. Carolyne rescues him.
- Carolyne helps Ed buy a suit. “It is like shopping with a five-year-old boy”.
- Miliband is surprised to see everyone is drinking pints in the working man’s club.
- Miliband causes uproar at the local bingo by calling House when his numbers don’t match. Winter covers up for him by telling the bingo ladies “Ed is not very good with numbers, though he is chief economic adviser to the Chancellor.”
- Milband refuses to put a bet on the Grand National because Gordon Brown hates betting.
- Gordon Brown asks Carolyne what it has been like with Miliband as a house guest. Carolyne says it is like having an unruly teenage boy in the house. “I know exactly what you mean,” says Brown. “You have my complete sympathies”.
It is hardly surprising that the Mail on Sunday, no admirer of Miliband, has branded him “Calamity Ed”. But there is a serious side to this litany of personal mini-disasters as the election approaches. Quite obviously, judging from the sniping at Miliband’s leadership from the likes of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn, grave doubts are emerging in Labour ranks about whether the man can deliver victory. Increasingly, attention is turning to the vacuum at the heart of Labour’s policies, whether they be on the economy, immigration, Europe or even its supposed strong suit the NHS.
On both personality and policy, Miliband is running into trouble. A poll last year found that 40 per cent of the public think that he is “weird” and that was before his run-in with a bacon sandwich. The latest revelations can only serve to reinforce that impression. Does Britain really want a Prime Minister who blunders around locking himself in his house, setting carpets on fire and getting bitten by dogs? What if he sits on the nuclear button?
A Churchill – or indeed a Boris Johnson, no stranger to calamity either – might be able to laugh off such pratfalls. Not Miliband, the man who “forgot” to mention the deficit in his conference speech. As election campaigning and the media spotlight intensify, Ed’s “weirdness”, the lack of social ease and common sense exemplified by the Doncaster episode, risks becoming yet more apparent.
David Cameron is indeed lucky in his opponent.