Will Miliband face either Cameron or Clegg at the election?

by Jonathan Todd

This weekend the fog of war descended on Brighton, central London and Grantham. It seemed to be thickest in Brighton where the Liberal Democrats met for their spring conference. Some think their enemy are the “self-appointed detectives” in the media. Others are convinced that their enemy is the party with whom they share government.

Orange-on-orange attacks are more to the taste of some: What did Nick Clegg know about Lord Rennard and Chris Huhne? And when? Is the party capable of avoiding electoral annihilation with him at the helm? Does he agree with George Osborne or Vince Cable on public investment? If Cable, where does that leave the commitment to immediate deficit reduction that supposedly lies at the heart of the governmental compact between their party and the Conservatives?

It’s not clear whether Cable’s abdication of this compact is a declaration of war with Osborne or Clegg. He’s undoubtedly taking collective responsibility and unrelenting commitment to deficit reduction on fleet-footed dances. In so doing, he wants to emerge with his now battered reputation for economic wisdom restored and his status as the heir apparent to Clegg renewed.

The sensible argument for the defenestration of Clegg is that the alternative is to reduce the Liberal Democrats to a parliamentary rump of cockroaches. His embrace of Cameron and support for increased tuition fees shattered public trust, so says the argument against him, which can never be regained. No masochistic radio phone-ins or relaunches are going to change this. Clegg, pace Jonathan Freedland and John Kampner, is a dead man walking and if he is not removed then he will drag his party down with him.

Of course, however, the Liberal Democrats do not want a general election too soon, not with their poll ratings on the floor. Autumn 2014 seems a more opportune juncture to change leader. This would provide enough time for a new leader to make their mark but is probably close enough to May 2015 that the fixed term of 5 years would be served.

While fog swirled around Brighton, it thickened over central London, as Conservative Home hosted a conference that looked at the road to a Conservative majority. New polling from Michael Ashcroft suggests this road will be steep. Only 7 per cent of Conservative party members think David Cameron will lead them to a majority.

Although she did not declare her candidacy for the party leadership at the conference, the home secretary did enough to say: “There is an alternative and her name is Theresa”. Her speech roamed far beyond her brief. She must suspect that if she is not party leader by the time Boris Johnson returns to the Commons, probably at the next election, she never will be. Her commitment to scrap the Human Rights Act will both appeal to Conservatives frustrated with Cameron and encourage Nigel Farage to see her as the kind of Conservative leader that UKIP could do business with, which would further raise her stock among Conservatives with more in common with Farage than Cameron.

Just as Liberal Democrats consider replacing Clegg in autumn 2014, Conservatives are making similar assessments about Cameron.

If Cameron can’t win and can’t neutralise the threat of UKIP, why stick with him? If the Liberal Democrats are abandoning collective responsibility, why should Conservatives uphold it and fail to set out a quite distinct platform? And shouldn’t this platform be formed by the kind of authentic conservatism that Cameron seems averse to and which May wants activists to think is more her?

These questions hung heavy over London, as Progress gathered in Grantham. One attendee at the Progress conference described the mood as “positive” and unquestionably, Miliband is more secure in post than Cameron or Clegg. But my review of last year’s conference concluded that we’ll need more answers on Labour policy by the time of this year’s conference.

Whether we have as many answers as we would have hoped this time last year is debateable but recently I’ve argued that Labour needs to more clearly differentiate ourselves from the last government, be a vehicle for realistic hope and craft a credible fiscal settlement with increased public investment. We are not short of urgent tasks.

The atmosphere in government must be increasingly febrile and paranoid as the pressures on Cameron and Clegg increase. These pressures could even bring them down before the election and certainly, they have largely played their hands: if the economic strategy that Cable inches away from secures recovery, then they can expect to fight another election but they may not if it does not.

Miliband has more cards to play but given how long it takes to shift popular perceptions, less time to play them effectively than might be presumed. He’ll be playing a quite different poker game if he does line up against Cable and May. Even if he ends up in this game, he’ll be well served by the actions needed to best counter Cameron and Clegg: decisive evidence of having led Labour to being a changed and improved party.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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2 Responses to “Will Miliband face either Cameron or Clegg at the election?”

  1. swatantra says:

    I agree with Jonathan, we need to put a bit of dstance beween us and the Blair Brown years. Yes, there were many things that we did which we can be proud of, but there were some we could have done differently. A span of even 20 years is considerable. The past can be pretty urecognisable; think back to 1979; if you stepped back in time, I can guarantee you would wonder where you were. Technolgy, social patterns and working practices have changed. You would feel out of place and uncomfortable. Time marches on; the Party must move on.
    The 3rd possible scenario is that by 2015 all 3 Parties may be starting afresh with a new leader.

  2. QuinQue says:

    May will never lead the conservatives, neither will Gove or Boris or any of the others currently being bandied around, if Cameron goes it will be somebody out of left field. Clegg is safe, nobody else wants to take over while they can still have their career blighted by the toxins of coalition, expect a bloodbath post 2015, depending on exactly who is left, cause odd are Clegg will not retain his seat.

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