by Atul Hatwal
What’s the best attack on the Tories? For Ed Miliband, the fate of Jeremy Hunt has been the priority, apparently at the expense of highlighting the return of recession.
Commentators from all sides of the left have been critical: most voters already think all politicians are far too close to the media barons. The Hunt affair only confirms this and expending valuable political time on the intricacies of the Ministerial code instead of hammering home Tory failure on the recession totally misses the point.
It’s an understandable view. But wrong.
Jeremy Hunt is small fry. This issue is actually about leadership, David Cameron’s and Ed Miliband’s.
If the Labour leader has a single task to achieve before the next election, he must to narrow the gap with David Cameron on who the voters prefer as prime minister.
To understand the scale of challenge, it’s worth reflecting on a salutary fact: at the last general election on May 3rd, YouGov surveyed people on their preference for prime minister. Gordon Brown was the choice of 26% with David Cameron on 32%. In the nineteen months of his leadership, across 40 polls, Ed Milband has never bettered Gordon Brown’s dismal benchmark.
Huntgate gives Miliband an opportunity to help change the way that the public looks at him, and David Cameron.
Cameron has made clear he wants to hang on to Hunt. He’s obfuscated and dodged on taking action. But his judgement is poor and Hunt is a dead man walking. The weight of evidence clearly highlights how Hunt broke the Ministerial code and even Tories like Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Accounts Select Committee have called for a referral to the regulator.
By majoring on this, Ed Miliband has turned this issue into a personal contest of wills with the prime minister. He has purposefully led, forcing the pace while Cameron is responding with ever evolving positions. Number 10’s initial reaction that Leveson would deal with any potential breach of the Ministerial code demonstrates the extent to which they have been rolled and are now making it up as they go along.
That Number 10 could issue this line without having checked with Leveson himself beggar’s belief. When Leveson entirely predictably said ‘not my problem mate’, Cameron’s defence was left in tatters.
If and when Hunt goes, the story will shift from Hunt to the prime minister. It will be about his lack of judgement and weakness in not being able to hold onto his ministers. Ed Miliband will be seen to have had the better judgement, and most importantly, imposed his will on David Cameron.
Voters can forgive many things in a prime minister, but weakness is not one of them.
The last time YouGov asked the question on peoples’ preference for rime minister in mid-April, David Cameron still had a substantial lead over Ed Miliband, 31% to 22%.
But the lead was the narrowest it’s been, David Cameron’s own rating was amongst the lowest to date and this was before the Hunt affair.
Ed Miliband has closed to within 9 points before. The previous occasion was at the height of the initial revelations on hacking in July last year. David Cameron recovered within a couple of months and by January this year had stretched his lead to 24 points, 41% to 17%.
But unlike with hacking, economic circumstances are darker and there is a clear and definitive point of decision. Either Hunt stays or goes. No enquiry or commission to give Cameron a get out and the issue will be squarely about his judgement.
When YouGov ask the question again, if Hunt has gone, there should be a clear impact and Miliband will deserve his plaudits.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor at Uncut