By Mark Wallace
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During the 2010 General Election campaign, a Labour photo opp with Gordon Brown was interrupted by a car colliding with a bus stop. At that point, I thought it was as bad as things could get – how could any metaphorical car crash by a politician possibly outdo the real thing?
Chris Bryant is evidently more imaginative, and has today embarked on a one man mission to prove me wrong. Belted into the driver's seat of a rhetorical red mini metro, he careered through the political media, ploughing into bollards, oncoming traffic, tourists and both mounted cavalrymen outside Horseguards.
Just to ensure the job was done properly, he brought his political road-trip to a halt by effecting a head-on collision with an Alan Partridge-style joke about how easy it is to mistakenly think obese women are pregnant. The metaphorical car is definitely a write-off.
Given the mounting chorus of voices both inside and outside the Labour Party questioning their disastrously ineffective summer, it seems the Shadow Minister for Borders and Immigration decided he was the man to rescue them from the doldrums. Either that or he was worried he might be for the high jump come Ed Miliband's much-anticipated fourth reshuffle in less than three years.
Given the rather tiresome PR tactic of briefing a politician's speech to the newspapers before they have actually delivered it, it's common for the press released text of any announcement to carry the caveat "Check against delivery". Never has the warning been more useful – Bryant's troubles spring from briefing a fatally flawed speech and then backtracking before he had even read it out in public.
The general theme was meant to be that large companies such as Next and Tesco are essentially shipping Polish workers to Britain in order to save money, depriving British workers of jobs.
Unfortunately, he hadn't done his homework: the pre-brief criticised a Tesco depot in Kent, where the company doesn't have a depot; Next have pointed out they pay as much for Polish workers as for British staff, so the charge of penny-pinching doesn't hold true; both retailers have also said they ended up hiring Poles because Brits don't apply for the shift work they advertise.
By this morning, Bryant's tune had completely changed, saying:
"I fully accept that Next and Tesco indeed often go the extra mile to try and recruit more local workers."
Which rather blunts his attack on them.
His proposed solutions were just as much of a mess. Apparently, the problem is insufficient employment red tape – and nothing to do with the open borders required by EU membership or the welfare system which allows some to earn more when unemployed than by working for a living.
Is Chris Bryant proposing we should take back control of our borders and immigration policy from Brussels? No. Is he reversing Labour's opposition to welfare reform? No. As Robert Halfon wrote for us this morning, there may well be valid criticisms of some big companies' approach to workers, and there are valid concerns about the impact of mass immigration – but this isn't the way to handle either issue.
The pre-briefed speech was such a car crash that by this morning he was trying to deny that the text was his.
The Today Programme called the initial version "half-baked [and] sloppily-drafted", and to be honest the eventual text was little better.
Labour's poor grasp of history was evident, as he dragged various famous figures into his case, apparently at random. Simon de Montfort – not well-known as a Tesco shelf-stacker – was cited as an example of a beneficial immigrant, a record rather undermined by his policy of expelling the jews from Leicester in perpetuity. Rudyard Kipling was apparently an immigrant because he was "born in India", an analysis that suggests Bryant hasn't quite grasped the concept of how an Empire works.
This is just another installment in Miliband's summer farce. The speech was a disaster before Bryant opened his mouth, but it is a symptom of a wider malaise in the opposition.Every time they try to start a campaign – on education, on welfare, on health, on the economy, on fiscal policy and now on immigration – they have become bogged down in internal contradictions and in-fighting.
With each disaster, the target on Ed Miliband's back grows larger – and even this sorry bunch can't miss it forever.