Miliband finds his scoring boots in assault on Pessina

The Labour leader doesn’t always hit the open goals, as playwright David Hare reminded us at the weekend

Columnist Nigel Horne

I’m not sure that Stefano Pessina, the boss of Boots the Chemists, would have been cowering in the nappy aisle after Ed Miliband’s counter-attack yesterday – but supporters of the Labour leader were at least pleased to see the Italian get a taste of his own medicine.

Pessina had told the Sunday Telegraph that a Labour government would be a “catastrophe” for Britain. The party’s policies, he told the paper, would be “not helpful for business, not helpful for the country and in the end… probably won’t be helpful for them.”

What the 74-year-old tycoon failed to realise was just how helpful he might end up being to Labour.

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By Sunday afternoon, Douglas Alexander, Chuka Umunna and all manner of Labour election candidates had piled in, telling anyone who’d listen that Pessina was living in tax exile in Monaco, sitting on a personal fortune estimated at £7.5 billion (much of it made from his recent merger of Boots Alliance with the US company Walgreens), and that anti-avoidance campaigners have for a long time been asking about Boots’ tax status.

Also, one of the points the veteran deal-maker made in is Sunday Telegraph interview was how essential it was that Britain remained in the EU. Yet he conveniently ignored the fact – or at least the Sunday Telegraph did - that Labour is committed to keeping Britain in Europe, while there’s a 50-50 chance of us pulling out if the Tories win because of David Cameron’s guarantee of a referendum.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband himself stepped in. The Labour leader doesn’t always score his open goals – something David Hare alluded to in a Guardian essay at the weekend - but here was a wide open one and Ed didn’t miss.

He told a young voters’ question and answer gig at Sky News on Monday: “Yesterday, the chairman of Boots started telling people how to vote in the UK general election. Well, it turns out that the chairman [actually, he’s acting chief executive, but we’ll that pass] of Boots lives in Monaco and is actually avoiding his taxes.

“Now, I’ve just got to say to you, I don’t think people in Britain are going to take kindly to being lectured by somebody who’s avoiding his taxes on how they should be voting at the UK general election.”

Miliband went on: “You’ve now got this unholy alliance between the Conservative Party and people like him who are actually saying that the country can’t change. I think we can change the country.

“I think part of my job is to say: ‘We’re going to stand up to these powerful forces who aren’t paying their taxes, who are avoiding their taxes.’ Because frankly, they have a responsibility.”

The London Evening Standard likes to “score” its daily political punch-ups: it gave Miliband a 3-1 win over the Italian.

And just to make it a rare sunny day for Miliband, The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman pointed out what a good job the Labour leader had done in his Q and A with the kids at Sky. He had a good time, she said, he was relaxed and he dealt with one or two difficult questions very well.

“His overall success in this question-and-answer session underlines why David Cameron wants to avoid the televised leaders’ debates,” Hardman concluded. “Miliband looking weird has become a cultural meme, which means that when he does appear in a debate, he will surprise voters by coming across far better than they’d expected. It is this low expectations threshold that Number 10 fears.”

All in all, after a hellish Sunday, a not-too-bad Monday for Ed Miliband. But then there's Tuesday...

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