Not red Ed, but Scarlet. And Jeremy not even a proper ginga.

by Dan Hodges

David Cameron’s message of congratulation to Ed Miliband on the birth of his son will have been especially heartfelt. There will be genuine empathy, of course. But also relief. Hostilities, for the duration of the Labour leader’s paternity leave, are to be suspended.

Both men can use the break. Over the past month, much of the focus has been on Ed. How would the young lion perform in the Parliamentary den? Could he unite a party wounded by election defeat and bruised by a fractious leadership contest? Launch an effective assault on the government’s gruesome prospectus of cuts?

The answers are a) well; b) sort of; and c) not yet. And they are tentative answers. Because Ed Miliband’s start as leader can only truly be judged in comparison with that of his opponent. A comparison that has yet to be fully made.

Labour’s grotesquely elongated leadership contest had numerous consequences. One of them was to spare Cameron the baptism of fire that should have greeted a new prime minister, especially one with no clear majority leading such an incongruous coalition. Harriet Harman was a mature and effective caretaker leader, and she landed some hits. But Cameron’s response was to flirt and flatter; and if it didn’t buy him dinner and a movie, it bought him time.

Ed Miliband’s arrival has, in contrast, unsettled him. In part, this is because he is unsure whether the optimum tactic is to crush or to patronise his opponent. Partly it is because he, like many of us, underestimated the confidence and poise Ed Miliband would display at the despatch box. But primarily – and it is amazing that this hasn’t been more widely remarked – David Cameron, as prime minister, is a terribly poor Parliamentary performer. Cameron is easily goaded and unsettled, and quickly slips into petulance. He frequently fails to take command of his brief and often seems unsure of relatively basic facts. He lacks fluency during the big set piece debates and has not yet mastered the killer line with which to conclude the exchanges at PMQs.

That is not to say that Ed Miliband is knocking him all over the ring. To date, the two have emerged from their exchanges honours even. But Cameron has been prime minister for nearly six months and leader of his party for the best part of five years. Ed has been leader for little more than six weeks. If he begins to slam Cam, he will hurt him.

Tactically, David Cameron has been more sure footed. He is cleverly using his office to embed his definition as leader of a national government. The “bloody Sunday” announcement. The “humility” with which he conducted his tour of India. The signing of the defensive entente cordiale with Nicolas Sarkozy. A series of counter-intuitive statements which are being used to insulate him from the charge that he is just another Bullingdon Tory. Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne are doing the ideological dirty work, loading the skivers onto buses and forcing the scroungers out of our inner cities. It’s cynical, but it’s effective.

Ed has not yet mastered the definition game. There was a half-hearted attempt to paint him as “tough” when he blocked Nick Brown’s election as shadow chief whip, and Ed and Yvette’s aspiration to be shadow chancellor. But since then the efforts have been confused. The CSR was a car crash. Fresh trouble beckons over welfare policy, where Douglas Alexander’s “tough love” messages seem to be cutting across the “spare the women and children” protestations of his leader.

It may be that the tactic is to replicate the Tory good cop/bad cop routine, leaving Ed as the fresh compassionate face of Labour, while the old New Labourites do the heavy lifting. If it is, it isn’t working. Definition only comes through bold statements or actions. It may be too early for a clause four moment. But a clause one moment would be nice.

Tactics, though, can be quickly amended. The key battle will be over strategy. And here Ed has an advantage. If he can exploit it.

On the surface, Cameron appears strategically sound. He is pitching above politics, praying in aid the national interest. He is covered on one flank by Labour’s perceived legacy of economic failure. On the other by his Liberal Democratic allies. If we attack on economics he deploys “no return to boom or bust”. If we attack on the socially regressive or ideologically driven nature of his plans, the Lib Dems ride to his rescue.

Cameron’s weakness lies behind him. His own back benches are silent. Strangely silent. They roared their approval when the cuts were announced. But that aside, not a peep.

Over surrendering our aircraft carriers to the French, the shameless daylight robbery of the Eurocrats and Ken Clarke’s emancipation of the prison population, the Tory young Turks have been struck dumb. Masters of the universe? They don’t even have unchallenged supremacy over the cabinet table sugar bowl.

Their silence should not be taken for assent. They are not happy. In fact, many of them are extremely unhappy. Their unhappiness represents the real fault line running through the coalition. And it represents Ed Miliband’s great strategic opportunity.

When we were in government, what caused us the most pain? When the Tories attacked us? Or when they agreed with us? When we thought our leaders were standing up to them? Or when we though they were in league with them? Or, worse still, when, on issues such as control orders, they attacked us not from the right, but from the left?

It’s the same with Cameron. Why are we building him up as the new Margaret Thatcher? Why are we decrying his policies as being blue in tooth and claw? Cameron is no Iron Lady. He is a big soft laddie.

“No. Oh, go on”. That was the killer line. Not, “Cameron is an arch Euro Sceptic”, but “M. Oui, non, peut-être”.

We keep taunting the Lib Dems. It’s good sport. But we should be putting business before pleasure. The Lib Dems are the tail that is wagging the Tory dog. If Harriet can’t stand the sight of Danny Alexander swanning around in his ministerial Jag, imagine how your average back bench Tory MP feels. “It’s a bit galling to see Jeremy Browne [a Lib Dem now at the foreign office] is a minister of state and I’m not even in the government”, one anguished Tory told the Times. And Jeremy Browne isn’t even a proper ginga.

The weak point in the coalition isn’t Nick Clegg’s disgruntled troops. It’s Cameron’s. That’s where we should be probing.

Because Cameron has one final weakness. His strategy is inflexible. He lives with the Lib Dems, or he dies with them. The moment he picked up the phone to Nick Clegg his strategy was fixed in stone.

Ed is not tied down. He can pick his moment. Choose his attacks. He can strike, then, Pimpernel-like, vanish into the Westminster night. Not Red Ed, but Scarlet.

For now, both the principals can rest. But in a fortnight hostilities will resume. When they do there will be everything to play for.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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7 Responses to “Not red Ed, but Scarlet. And Jeremy not even a proper ginga.”

  1. It’s becoming almost embarrassing how often I agree with Dan Hodges – I think I agree with just about every word of that. I’m really glad Ed Miliband is off for a couple of weeks and not just because I think it’s s great thing to spend that time with his new borne child. He’s been through a roller-coaster of a year from the General Election to the birth of his son and I think a good rest, from the politics, will do him the world of good.

  2. Susie says:

    Makes one wish Spitting Image was still in action, as in eg “Meanwhile, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne are doing the ideological dirty work, loading the skivers onto buses and forcing the scroungers out of our inner cities.” Tebbit puppet recyclable with a bit of added facial padding?

  3. AnneJGP says:

    I don’t wish to stir up further controversy on a sensitive issue, so please may I use this topic to enquire about the inner workings of the Labour party? Specifically, how the leadership team work together?

    The BBC website reports that Harriet Harman “faced anger from Labour MPs after her decision to disown expelled MP Phil Woolas“.

    I was surprised by the implication that the Deputy Leader could decide to “disown” a member of the shadow cabinet off her own bat.

    In my naivety, you see, I had assumed that whatever Ms Harman said on the matter was authorised by Mr Miliband. In that case, anger might be expressed towards her since Mr Miliband is now unavailable, but it wouldn’t be to the extent of saying she should “consider her position”.

  4. My interpretation of what Michael Connarty MP, said on BBC Radio 4 in last half hour, is that he did not ask Harriet Harman to consider her position or intend to infer that is what he meant. Rather, that she should ‘search her conscience’.

    Curiouser and curiouser….

  5. I agree with this, but how do we provoke that trouble within the Tory ranks? Because the tactic of agreeing with Cameron won’t work – too many people have come back to Labour too recently for us to stop treating them with kid gloves.

    We aren’t going to win an election on civil liberties, or opposing welfare reform, or just being nice, but right now they’re vital to keeping the newest part of our voting coalition, former Lib Dems who voted Labour prior to 2003, onboard. And if we can’t keep them on board, we slip back in the polls, Ed looks bad and in the meantime we have to win over twice as many normal swing voters.

    I think in a year to 18 months once these voters trust Labour a little more we’ll be a lot less constrained by this. But most of the clever strategy requires a party fundamentally at ease with itself, and that’s just not the case at the moment. I fear right now the major task is keeping the wheels on the wagon, with landing blows on Cameron as an optional extra.

  6. antigone says:

    Both the princiPALS can rest – not the principles.
    And Peter C Johnson you are advising us of what you sought not to imply not infer!

    Standards boys, standards

  7. Editor says:


    Our apologies. We are mortified by our inadequacy.

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