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The Man Who Would Be Prime Minister

How the Murdoch scandal could give Britain its first Jewish head of government

Marc Tracy
July 20, 2011
Ed Miliband speaking last month to a crowd that included and was sponsored by, yes, Rupert Murdoch.(Ben Gurr - WPA Pool/ Getty Images)
Ed Miliband speaking last month to a crowd that included and was sponsored by, yes, Rupert Murdoch.(Ben Gurr - WPA Pool/ Getty Images)

Instead of writing a post about how the phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch’s empire, Scotland Yard, and several other facets of the British establishment including Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party could see Ed Miliband, the opposition leader, becoming the first Jewish prime minister in Britain’s history, I asked my friend Ben Jacobs to explain it to me, because that is what I always do where British politics are concerned. Ben is a law school grad with no specific, say, British history or political science credentials. But I dare you to find an error he made. You’ll fail.

So, Ed Miliband, Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition and head of the Labour Party: he’s Jewish?
Yes, although he is a self-proclaimed atheist and (therefore) doesn’t practice. Both of his parents were refugees from the Holocaust who fled to England. His father was the philosopher Ralph Miliband, one of the leading Marxist thinkers of his time. But he is certainly ethnically Jewish even if he did not come from an observant background.

How many other Jewish prime ministers have there been? And obviously you have to answer the question of Benjamin Disraeli.
Disraeli was prime minister twice, in the late 19th century, for the Tories (David Cameron’s party). He was born into a well-to-do Sephardic Jewish family that converted to Christianity when Disraeli was 13 after his father had a dispute with their synagogue. Disraeli made a big deal of his Jewish ancestry, if only because if he was going to face prejudice because of it, he might as well own it. A great example of this was when he famously replied to an anti-Semitic remark in Parliament by stating, “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

But other than him? None?
No. Though if you want to stretch it, one prime minister, Lord Rosebery, did marry a Rothschild, which means he is the only British head of government whose children would have been adjudged Jewish under halacha. That would actually include Miliband, if he makes it, because Miliband’s wife isn’t Jewish.

Is there any reason for that? I mean obviously it’s not that strange. But France, for example, has had Jewish prime ministers.
It’s just chance—though in that case it likely has as much to do with the fact that French governments have been historically so unstable, which just gave more opportunities for everyone to be prime minister, than any cultural factors. Jews have certainly been well represented in British politics in all three parties. One former prime minister, Harold MacMillan, actually once griped about the number of Jews in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, saying that it had more “old Estonians” than “old Etonians.” Even now, the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is Jewish.

Tell me more about Miliband.
He essentially comes from the British equivalent of the Upper West Side (and not just because he’s from a secular Jewish left-wing background). He has degrees from Oxford and the London School of Economics and spent a decade working as a speechwriter and policy adviser for Gordon Brown before being elected to Parliament in 2005. He had been considered one of the party’s rising stars and joined the cabinet in 2007, once Brown had become prime minister.

After Labour lost the 2010 general election, Brown stepped down as leader of the party. In the ensuing leadership election, Miliband only barely won, and it was really more on a technicality, which created a major problem between him and the second-place finisher, who happened to be his elder brother, David, the former foreign secretary, who roughly had the same relationship with Tony Blair that Ed had with Brown. And Blair and Brown had a fraught relationship without the extra baggage of being siblings.

What does Cameron have to do with Murdoch? Why might the scandal take him down?
Cameron and the Conservative Party have studiously courted Murdoch and News International, Murdoch’s British subsidiary, over the past few years. Cameron even went so far as to hire the News of the World’s former editor, Andy Coulson, to be his communications director despite warnings that there was unsavory behavior in Coulson’s past like hiring convicted axe murderers to spy on people (Coulson was one of the first former News Corporation officials to be arrested in connection with the scandal). There are a lot of questions being raised about how close Cameron was with Murdoch and News International and what he knew about the phone-hacking and when.

Say Cameron is ousted or has to step down as Tory leader. What happens then?
The real pressure point would be with the coalition that the Conservative Party has with the Liberal Democrats. It is the first coalition government in the U.K. in 70 years and has come under a significant amount of strain in the year that it’s been in existence. It has not been particularly popular among many in the Conservative Party (and has hurt Liberal Democrats electorally in off-year elections since) and it is questionable whether it could continue under another Conservative prime minister.

What are some plausible scenarios visible from the present under which Miliband becomes prime minister?
There’s no plausible scenario in the short-term. It is very hard in modern British politics to bring down a sitting government in the middle of a Parliament. However, sometime between now and June 2015, there will have to be an election for the House of Commons, and it seems more likely than not as of this moment that Labour would win that election and Ed Miliband would become prime minister.

What is your prediction for what will happen?
I don’t have a prediction. Harold MacMillan once said a week is a long time in politics. Considering how fast-moving this scandal has been, it’s hard to tell. This time two weeks ago, the News of the World was the most widely circulated English-language newspaper in the world. Now it’s defunct.

Benjamin Disraeli [Nextbook Press]

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

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