On May 8, 2015, Ed Miliband resigned as the leader of Britain’s Labour Party after being defeated in the general election by incumbent conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. His rise to the top was over. It was a shock to some that have tracked his trajectory from a monetary policy wonk to knocking on the door to 10 Downing St. But to particularly keen observers, his rising star began to burn out much earlier.
To those who had been crafting his image, for better or worse, they can point to almost a year before then. And a bacon sandwich, in particular.
The day before the local elections in Britain was supposed to be a simple one. The Labour Party was holding a slim margin in most opinion polls about a potential nationwide election. In the first of several campaign events that day, Miliband went to the New Covent Garden flower market in London to be photographed buying flowers for his wife, Justine. He also made the fateful decision to get breakfast, ordering a bacon sandwich.
For London Evening Standard photographer Jeremy Selwyn, the moment was prime for a gaffe.
“As soon as anybody famous starts to eat in front of you, as a photographer you start switching on immediately,” he told HuffPost. “It’s obvious that it’s not your glamour shot.”
Miliband started eating. Selwyn started taking photos. He looked like he bit off more than he could chew, and he wasn’t winning the battle against a gritty opponent. Most of all, he looked awkward. When Miliband’s advisers saw what was happening, they took the sandwich away from him. But it was too late. The damage was done.
“I took about 10 to 15 photos,” Selwyn said. “There were two or three that were pretty bad, but all of them have been published in various publications.”
“As soon as anybody famous starts to eat in front of you, as a photographer you start switching on immediately. It’s obvious that it’s not your glamour shot.”
– photographer Jeremy Selwyn
Also on the scene was the Standard’s political editor, Joe Murphy, who would later write that “Mr. Miliband’s battle to consume the greasy treat alarmed his media minders, who tried to stop photographers taking close-ups of butter oozing between his teeth.”
For those not familiar with the bacon sandwich/sarnie/butty, it’s the simple combination of bacon, butter and bread. Some, like Miliband, add ketchup or other condiments.
“You need to understand that the bacon sandwich has a sort of cultural icon status in Britain as the food of the busy working classes,” Murphy said. “Ed was no doubt thinking we would blend in with the masses… but it looked from where I was standing that Ed was having a fight with the bacon sandwich.”
For Britons, it’s a universal food. It’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s the hangover cure and the worker’s delight. Researchers have devoted entire studies to determine what constitutes the perfect version of it.
“I didn’t anticipate that it would be more than one morning’s chuckle,” Murphy recalled. “Of course, it went viral, and pretty soon everybody was mocking Ed. Twitter was full of people taking selfies of themselves with bacon sandwiches. Political rivals started eating bacon sandwiches just to say it could be done.” Case in point:
That’s when the sandwich stopped being just a sandwich. It started to become a visual catch-all to represent an argument that Miliband was too geeky, too intellectual, too stuffy to relate to the working people of Britain and consequently to be prime minister. For his opponents, especially in conservative media, the photo was the perfect symbol to argue that he was an inexperienced weirdo who can’t handle simple tasks.
“It became part of his identity,” Murphy said. “The whole point was he was supposed to buy some flowers for Justine and go home looking like a nice, ordinary chap.”
His penchant for frequent public displays of awkwardness sparked dedicated social media accounts.
“It obviously triggered some recognition in people,” he says. “It crystallized something that was already there, but people hadn’t found the words or the reason to vote against him.”
A year later, a day before the election, the largest newspaper in Britain printed the photo again with the headline “Save Our Bacon.” If he was too awkward to maintain his composure while eating a sandwich, then how would he be able to oversee a recovering economy, protect the homeland or keep the health services running?
“Whether or not that was fair, that’s not really for me to comment on,” Selwyn said. “I would’ve taken the same picture had it been a member of any other political party in this country. For me, it’s just a matter of recording what was going on in front of me.”
When asked by The Guardian in 2017 if he had any regrets from his time as leader, Miliband pointed to the bacon sandwich. But he stopped short of saying that it killed his career.
“To say that was the reason we lost the election, I just don’t buy it. It was more complicated than that.”
Google Ed Miliband and one of the top autocomplete phrases is “Ed Miliband sandwich.” Since 2015, he has operated in obscurity, popping up occasionally on Twitter to lend his support to fellow politicians who have been caught eating food weirdly. Cameron was raked over similar coals when eating a hot dog with utensils, and Prime Minister Theresa May once got caught eating fries in a “daft” manner.
“Ed is a pretty resilient guy,” Murphy said. “He withstood it all, but of course he was forced to take it in stride and to join in. Very rarely did he make a speech from then on without a reference to bacon sandwiches.”