This article is from the March 2013 issue of Total Politics
Ed Miliband’s first 100 days as prime minister began inauspiciously. In fact, they began 30 minutes late. “It was Damian’s [McBride] idea for him to walk back across from the Palace through the park. But, of course, he got mobbed. Took him half an hour longer than we’d thought,” said a source.
Fortunately the PM’s newly appointed press chief had ensured everything else had gone to plan. “ONE NATION UNDER ED!”, was the Daily Mirror splash, heralding Labour’s 47-seat majority; “R-ED DAWN”, the Daily Mail’s slightly more downbeat take.
“The first big issue we had was the statement outside Downing Street,” said an aide. “We’d hardly any time to prepare it. Most of the evening had been spent working on the cabinet announcement. Then someone said, 'OK, so what about the first address?"; and Ed says, 'It’s all right, I’ve got something Maurice prepared here', and he taps his pocket. And about 10 different people shout, 'No!!'”
After some frantic drafting and re-drafting – “We finally managed to get it down to only five mentions of 'One Nation'” – Miliband had the speech memorised. “The only issue was, we were planning name checks for Blair and Brown. Stewart [Wood] thought it was important. Some of the other guys thought we should take it out. Tom Watson said keep Brown but drop Blair. But Ed said, ‘I’m my own man now’. Apparently, when Gordon found out, he went through seven Nokias.”
Standing in the rain, sheltering under his PPS Owen Jones’s umbrella, Miliband delivered what many close friends thought was the speech of his life: “Mine has not been the easiest journey. When I felt the cold water of the Haverstock Comprehensive toilets running down my neck, as I had my head held in the bowl. When I sat alone with a Rubik’s cube in my dorm at Corpus Christi. When I looked down at the hungry yet hopeful faces of my Harvard students; Downing Street seemed a long way off. But today I am here, in this very street, as your prime minister.”
As soon as his speech was finished, Miliband had to take his first major decision since being elected. The first job of any incoming PM is to sign the “letters of last resort”, the sealed orders to the four commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet, telling them what to do in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK. According to Downing Street legend, Margaret Thatcher wrote, “Kill them all”, John Major penned, “Oooh, it’s a tough one, isn’t it?”, Tony Blair said, “Look guys, do what you think’s best”, and Gordon Brown gave four different orders to four different submarines.
“Of course, Ed had a different problem,” said a close adviser. “He had to tell the joint chiefs, ‘Sorry, but we won’t be needing the letters. I’m scrapping Trident’. It had been in the manifesto; our ‘Big idea’. But they still found it pretty hard to take. The first sea lord looked like he was going to burst into tears.”
But formally scrapping Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was by no means the hardest choice of Miliband’s first 24 hours in Downing Street. After the joint chiefs came the meeting with the members of the new cabinet.
“Basically, it should have been easy. Ed B, Douglas, Jim, Chuka, Stella, Yvette, Liz Kendall, Maria Eagle, Dan Jarvis and Vince Cable all basically chose themselves,” recalls a confidante, “but the elephant in the room was David. What do we do with David?”.
A thousand words have already been written about that fateful 11.15 meeting between the two men. “The way Ed treated David was shameful” says any ally of the elder Miliband. “The worst sort of student politics,” says a senior backbencher.
Even a close ally of Ed Miliband, someone who was in the room at the time, concedes things could have been managed better. “Look, I think the basic plan was sound. There are still some big issues over there that need to be sorted out, and it’s a sensitive brief. But should Ed really have said, 'David, I want you to be my chancellor', then a second later, 'Hah! Only joking. I’m giving you Northern Ireland'? In retrospect, probably not.”
Reports that the two brothers had to be physically separated are discounted by friends of both men. But as David Miliband stalked down Downing Street and out of British politics for good, the man actually appointed as Miliband’s chancellor was on the phone with news of his first major crisis.
“So, picture the scene,” says an aide. “Ed’s in there, David’s shouting, Stewart’s shouting, Dugher’s shouting something about how they wouldn’t put up with this down the pit, Tim Livesey is appealing for calm, and then Ed Balls pops up on the speaker and says, 'Just to let you know, the pound’s now worth two Drachma and half a goat'.”
Black Friday was not entirely unexpected. As election day had approached, and Labour’s opinion poll lead widened in the wake of the “Cash for Gun Boots” scandal, the FTSE 100 had edged down, and the currency speculators had begun to circle.
“That was not a good day,” said a Treasury source. “The Bank of England was in meltdown, the CBI was in hysterics and Christine Lagarde was on the phone sounding like that woman out of 101 Dalmatians.”
In the end, the crisis was momentarily eased when the FT’s George Parker tweeted he had been briefed by a “senior treasury insider” that an “emergency budget is planned for next Tuesday, in which chancellor Ed Balls will announce Labour is planning public spending cuts 15 per cent deeper than those planned by his predecessor Michael Gove.”
“That was Alex [Belardinelli]”, says a No10 source, “Apparently, Ed B walked back into his office and Alex said, 'Just to let you know, we’ve sorted the markets, but you’ve got to give the budget on Tuesday now, not in August'. And Ed said, 'OK, great. That’ll be why I just got a text from Len McLuskey saying, ”Ring me now, you double-crossing @!!@!!”’
The “Death Budget”, as it was famously described by newly elected Labour MP Mehdi Hasan, was controversial but effective. “It did the job,” said one Blairite MP, grudgingly. “OK, I didn’t personally like the Mansion Tax, the Bankers' Bonus Tax or the nationalisation of Starbucks, but the cuts were brave. I think they only got the last of the protestors off the roof of Ed and Yvette’s house on Christmas Day. And of course, it calmed the City.”
With his first crisis successfully parked, PM Miliband was able to turn to his legislative agenda, and the bill that had in many ways come to define his Labour party leadership.
“There was quite a debate within the inner circle about what our first bill should be. Cruddas was saying something about, ‘painting in primary colours’. Neal Lawson kept shouting, ‘What would Gramsci do?’, but in the end Ed was pretty clear. Poor Damian just kept shaking his head, and muttering, ‘Nuts. This is nuts.’”
A week after his election Ed Miliband stood up at the first of his newly instituted weekly press conferences and announced the introduction of the Press Freedom and Regulation Act. “The reaction from the editors was pretty much what you’d expect,” said one Miliband aide who attended the first meeting with them to discuss the Bill’s implementation. “A couple of the newer editors, like Bob Roberts at the Mirror, and Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian, were obviously supportive, but others were pretty hostile. Paul Dacre said, "[the following text has been deleted under the terms of the 2015 Press Freedom and Regulation Act]”.
As the weeks passed, Miliband began, in the words of one adviser, “to adjust to the rhythm of being PM. You could see him starting to relax and grow into the role. There was this moment he was sitting at the cabinet table, and he looked out at Horseguards, and then he turned to me and said, ‘Thank God I don’t have to pretend my dad was a removal man any more. Or send out stupid tweets about Bob Holness.’”
The high point was undoubtedly Miliband’s July visit to Washington, and the trip to Camp David. “They hit it off right away,” said a US diplomatic source. “They’re both quite cerebral guys. Plus, Mr Miliband knows more about baseball and our football than the president. When the prime minister started talking to him about Roger Clemens pitching average, the president almost fell on the floor.”
A senior Downing Street source agrees. “That was the moment Ed showed he could hack it in the big leagues. Well, he would have done if we hadn’t made the mistake of letting the press pack film him and Obama shooting some hoops. Bad optics, very bad optics. White Milibands can’t jump.” Another aide says that despite their bond, Miliband is already looking to life beyond Obama: “To be honest, he’s a little nervous. The last thing Obama said to him before he left Washington was, 'Watch out for Hillary. She hasn’t forgiven you for what you did to your brother'.”
Miliband is said to be only too aware that his political honeymoon will soon to be drawing to a close. “He’s got a lot of tricky issues in his inbox,” says one cabinet source. “There’s the commitment to closing the Romanian and Bulgarian detention camps. Tom Baldwin’s publishing his diaries in January. And, of course, we’ve got the referendum.”
In last week’s Sunday Times interview the PM denied telling dinner companions, “I already regret giving in over that stupid referendum”. But Douglas Alexander is reported to be close to finalising the necessary legislation. And the 'Out' campaign, and its aggressive “She needs a new maternity unit, not another five years of Herman van Rompuy” posters, currently enjoys a 10-point lead in the polls. “We’ve got no choice now,” said an insider. "We’ve got to go with this thing. Ed Miliband has no intention of being the leader who takes us out of Europe, especially given the soft spot he has for Italian PM Mara Carfagna.”
But whatever clouds may be drifting over the horizon, Miliband can look back at his first 100 days with satisfaction. The memory of the 'Budget Protest' riot is fading, the last of the 'Occupy Dartmouth Park' protestors have packed away their tents, and Ken Livingstone’s new Popular Workers Alliance polled a derisory nine per cent in last month’s South Shields by-election. “Yes, we’ve got some tough times coming,” says a source, “but look where we’ve come from. If you think back to the start of 2013, when Cameron had just given his referendum pledge, we’d just taken a hammering on welfare, we were still trailing the Tories on the economy, Ed was still miles behind Cameron in the personal ratings, the polls were starting to swing back, the spread betting markets were coming back behind a Tory win... If you’d said back then Ed would be sitting in Downing Street two and a half years on with a 47-seat majority, who would have believed you?”
Good question. Who, indeed?