by Dan Hodges
True story. Last party conference before Iain Duncan-Smith is sent to sleep with the fishes. His senior aide is approached by a delegation of Tory grandees. “It’s over”, he’s told. “This is Iain’s last act as leader. You need to help us to help him. We are going to do this properly”.
The advisor is told to station thirty loyal supporters at strategic points around the conference hall. They are handed a copy of key passages from his speech. As soon as the passages are delivered they are to rise and start applauding. The conference will rise with them. The crown will be set down. But with dignity.
Except there’s a problem. Since the speech was distributed there have been amends. Sections have been adapted. Transposed. Duncan Smith begins his valedictory address. Within the first 15 seconds the first clap line appears. The acolytes rise. In moments the hall is on its feet.
The lost leader moves on to a new passage. This was supposed to be seven pages in. Now it is the second paragraph. Again, the cheerleaders rise. Again, so does the entire conference. The quiet man is turning up the volume.
He begins the third passage. It again includes one of the clap lines. The thirty are on their feet. Conference is on their feet. By now the Tory faithful are caught between a quandary and a frenzy. They are applauding every passage of note. How can they stop?
Iain Duncan-Smith received more than 20 standing ovations. Two weeks later he was history. The moral? When the Tories move against a leader, they move. They do it properly, even to the point of ensuring that their victim is allowed an open casket.
Over the past week, there has been mounting speculation about the future of Ed Miliband. The back-benches are becoming restless. The front-benches are in despair. The voters have cast their verdict.
But then there is the reprieve. “Labour aren’t like the Tories. They don’t move against their leaders”.
To borrow a line from a great man who knows a thing or two about undermining Labour leaders: “bollocks”. The Labour party has launched more coup attempts than a South American banana republic. The problem is, we are crap at them.
When Michael Foot was leader, the internal drumbeat against him reached such a crescendo the party was forced to call a press conference in the middle of the 1983 election campaign simply to confirm to voters that he was still leader. The plotting against Neil Kinnock became so public that David Hare wrote an entire play about it, “Absence of War”, which included a scene in which the Kinnock character physically assaults an aide who has been exposed for his disloyalty. Tony Blair freely admits in his autobiography that he and colleagues agitated against John Smith. Blair himself was the subject of at least two assassination attempts at the hands of Gordon Brown. Brown in turn survived the David Miliband plot, the James Purnell plot, the Blears/Flint plot, the Jowell/Darling plot and the Harriet Harman duck plot.
To date, Ed Miliband has been a poor leader. To the limited extent that the general public engages with him, they think he’s the guy who stabbed his brother in the back, had a Mori marriage and moonlights as an extra from the Wallace & Grommit cartoons. Labour’s poll ratings are bouncing around on a par with the Conservatives, a party whose populist programme includes a 1930s austerity package, the effective abolition of the NHS and the early release of some of the nation’s most brutal sexual predators.
But be clear: Ed Miliband is safe as houses. He’s going nowhere.
There are three reasons for this, none of which are to do with the mistaken belief that Labour treats its leaders with kid gloves.
The first is a political point. To get rid of a leader you need a replacement. And Labour doesn’t have one. Speaking to a senior former Blairite last week, the message was clear: “we’re not going to do to Ed what the Brownites did to Tony. Whatever people feel about his direction, or lack of it, we’re not in that game”. A shadow cabinet member told me, “I’ve got issues with Ed. Serious issues. But I can’t honestly say he’s at a place where I’ve convinced myself the best interests of the Labour party are served by me or others moving against him”.
Ed Balls, another potential successor, is continuing to build up his machine within the party. But for the moment he will be scrupulous in ensuring that he does not allow himself to become a focal point for discontent with the Miliband operation. Whether there is a vacancy is immaterial. There are currently no applicants.
The second point is organisational. Leadership elections cost a lot of money. And the Labour party doesn’t have any. The only people who could afford to bank-roll another ballot are the unions. And they just spent a large amount of their members’ cash telling those members that Ed Miliband was the man. Coming back within twelve months and arguing, “we were wrong last time, this time we’re right”, is a tough sell.
The third is personal. Ed Miliband is a bent flush, but he is not yet busted. The voice, the look, the biography, these are tactical issues, but not strategic. The serious problems, the continuing shambles of his office management, the lack of clear political direction, the myth of the “false choice” prospectus; these are still within his grasp, and as such, still within his gift to solve.
The problem for Labour’s leader is that he has yet to show any sign of getting to grips with them. The advantage for Labour’s leader is he still has the space to do so without snipers appearing in the bushes. And, in the short term, even if they were to do so, knowing the Labour party, they’d miss.
We all know how the immediate future will play out. The adverse criticism of Ed Miliband will intensify. Party conference will be framed as “make or break”. Ed will confront his critics. And face them down. For 24 hours he will be feted. His tormentors forced to live with our shame.
Then normal service will resume. Cameron will again demonstrate that the next election is a choice, rather than a referendum. He will ignore the leader of the opposition, damning him with non-existent condemnation.
But Ed Miliband will survive. Protected not by a bodyguard of loyalty, but one of uncertainty. He is not as much a prisoner of his party as Foot. Nor quite as distant from the public as Kinnock. He falls short of replicating Smith’s complacency, or Blair’s over-familiarity. It goes without saying that he is not another Gordon Brown.
Ed Miliband is secure. Not because he is surrounded by allies, but by natural enemies. And the Labour party has struck at the King, and missed, on too many occasions. People are sharpening their knives. But they will not be rash in using them.
Our leader has a breathing space. He needs to use it.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.