A failure to avoid an ill-judged photo-opportunity – or an inability to exploit unexpected mishaps – is often a pointer to the chances of eventual success in British politics.
David Miliband’s inept appearance at the 2008 Labour Party conference – walking along holding up a banana in his hand – was instantly captured by photographers and was an image which came back to haunt him.
Indeed the former Labour Foreign Secretary – now to be the new chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, a leading American humanitarian charity – never seemed entirely at home in the cut-and-thrust of the cruel interface between British politics and an unforgiving news media.
Today’s politicians, as demonstrated so colourfully by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, have to always have an eye on how their every move in public is likely to interpreted – or misinterpreted – by the tabloid press.
David Miliband’s goofy photo-opportunity was a political car crash. It provided the most unforgettable, and much reproduced, image of the 2008 party conference season and came to symbolise his lack of a killer instinct.
When the chips had been down earlier that summer, when Gordon Brown was floundering as Labour Prime Minister, Miliband fluffed his chance to launch a bid for the Labour leadership; he showed he was no Michael Heseltine, more of a Michael Portillo
In November 1990 Heseltine challenged the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Portillo held back in 1995 by failing to move to unseat a wounded John Major and his original indecisiveness worked against him in subsequent leadership elections. Likewise David Miliband’s indecision provided an opening seized by his brother Ed who won the leadership by the narrowest of margins.
Michael Heseltine had used a series of spectacular photo-opportunities with great success to project his image: in 1986 television cameras followed him walking out of Downing Street at the height of the crisis over Westland helicopters – and might have captured him seizing the mace if House of Commons proceedings had been televised back in 1976.
Miliband’s ineptitude in front of camera was mirrored by similarly cringe-making photo opportunities staged by William Hague after he was elected Conservative Party leader in 1997. Hague took the plunge – wearing a base ball cap bearing his name – and went for an infamous ride on the water slide at a theme park; his then fiancée Ffion joined him at the Notting Hill carnival later in the summer and they were snapped cooling off drinking coconut milk.
But disastrous photo-opportunities can be exploited as the Mayor of London Boris Johnson has shown time and again. Despite getting well and truly stuck high up on a zip wire over Hackney’s Victoria Park in the build-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, the Mayor used the resulting publicity to his advantage and his exploits on a zip wire became an internet sensation.
Politicians have to understand that even the most innocuous appearance in front of cameras can become a pr disaster. At the height of the 1990 scare over “mad cow disease” the then agriculture minister John Gummer was photographed holding a newly-cooked beef burger ready to be eaten by his four year old daughter Cordelia – and the tabloids used the photograph in such a way as to imply that he had tried to force feed his reluctant daughter.
Similarly after his election as Labour leader in the early 1980s, Neil Kinnock could hardly have imagined that his publicity stunt of walking with his wife Glenys along the pebbly beach at Brighton would backfire so spectacularly.
Kinnock, hand in hand with Glenys, tripped and at the very moment he fell on to the shingle, was hit by an incoming wave. Kinnock was doubly unfortunate: not only did he fall over but his slip-up was recorded by a television cameraman and then immortalised by being replayed time and again in the opening titles of Spitting Image.
David Miliband’s decision to quit British reflects his continuing distaste for the potential divisiveness of Britain’s political news coverage. He clearly feared that if he had remained on the backbenches he would be accused of sulking in exile. But equally if he had been offered – and tempted – to take a job in the Labour shadow cabinet – and perhaps join a future Labour government – he sensed that journalists would forever be comparing him to his brother Ed.
Either way David Miliband knew he had become a distraction and a weapon that could be used by a potentially hostile news media to sow dissent in the Labour Party. As he said himself, did not want the “soap opera” of British politics to hamper the chances of another Labour government and get in the way of really needed to be done.
Perhaps the most revealing quote in recent interviews was his recognition of the frustration – and almost certain futility – of trying to pull off the trick of playing second fiddle to his younger brother.
The former head of Tony Blair’s policy unit saw little attraction in embracing the work of the think tank that constitutes the Labour Party in opposition as it prepares for the long haul to the next election in May 2015:
“The thing about being a think-tank guy is that you just put things up into the ether and you try to persuade someone to write a story about it or take up the idea, but you don’t actually see it through. And I like seeing things through – so I don’t want the freedom to flit around.” (The Times, 14.3.2013)
Illustrations: Sunday Times, 28.9.2008; Metro, 2.8.2012; The Scotsman, 10.9.1997.