Aiming for the Ed
The pressure of being a prime minister is relentless. The spotlight never turns off and everyone in the audience is your harshest critic. Even your fellow actors are quick to point out the failures. The only way of surviving is by having strategies in place to cope with the certainty that the spotlight will find the weak moments. Having the charm of a Clinton or a Blair helps David Cameron get through the tougher moments.
Opposition leaders only get bathed in the limelight now and again. But when they find themselves there, they’d better be sure they’ve got their act together. These are the moments when audiences decide: is this man or woman armed with the judgment to do the right thing? Is their heart in the right place? Perhaps more importantly, is their head in the right place?
Ed Miliband has much to prove as Parliament winds down for the final summer before the general election. Last summer he was pretty absent and many of his colleagues worried about his lack of presence. Today, some are openly asking if they could ditch their leader before next May and still win. That’ll never happen. But the fact that some are even having the discussion tells Cameron a lot. Some polls have Miliband as even more unpopular than Nick Clegg. That’s some achievement.
The photo of him eating a bacon sandwich awkwardly during the European election campaign did little to cast him in a good light to voters unsure of what to make of him. As it happens, I’m sympathetic. No one looks good eating. And in fairness to the Labour supremo, he made good light of the snap afterwards. Perhaps he should do more gags at his own expense. People like human.
More importantly, study the results of the Newark by-election, the town hall elections and the Europeans and you find something curious. It was only the truly awful results suffered by the Lib Dems that covered up some seriously worrying numbers for Mr Miliband’s Labour troops.
The prime minister has ordered his own army of researchers, analysts and strategists to unleash a withering assault on Mr Miliband. It will begin shortly, I’m told by people who have seen battle plans.
It will focus on two points of weakness: the Labour leader’s economic sums don’t add up. And he says one thing, then does another.
The economy is central to Mr Cameron’s re-election hopes. But his strategy falls in two parts. Firstly he must deliver growth, cut the dole queue, attract foreign investors, get Britain booming again.
Secondly, however, he has to point out how much of a danger it would be to put Mr Miliband and his team into power, according to Tory strategists.
And it’s this second piece of work which will begin in earnest during the summer and early autumn. The bright sparks at Conservative HQ have had their calculators out and they’ve been doing the number crunching. How is it that Labour can oppose many of the cuts being made by the Conservative-led coalition and promise to spend billions on new policies? That simply doesn’t add up, Tories will say. And the only explanation – according to the Cameron team – is more borrowing, which will cost the country a fortune and plunge us back into the dark days of the crash. We’ll hear this attack over and over again.
What we’ll also see is Mr Cameron training the spotlight on his opposite number’s apparent habit of saying one thing and doing another.
It first became apparent last summer when the Labour leader sought to position himself as an international statesman over Syria. Days later he pulled the plug on the Commons vote and won an important tactical battle which left the PM embarrassed and weakened for a time.
But Mr Cameron and his advisers believe Mr Miliband shot himself in the foot strategically.
It was the first major example of talking the talk but not walking the walk, they say. The recent farcical handling of The Sun’s giveaway edition is another glaring example. Even Labour MPs were bemused by their leader’s actions. First he agreed to pose holding the nation’s best read newspaper.
Then he apologised when some in Liverpool objected because of the paper’s treatment of the Hillsborough disaster a quarter of a century ago. What are we meant to believe? That Labour’s leader forgot that The Sun has history on Merseyside and happily agreed to pose for a photo without thinking through the consequences? The perception is that he is trying to have it all ways.
Sure, politicians need to satisfy many audiences. But they need to be clever at it. Mr Cameron believes Mr Miliband is aware of his weaknesses and has decided to stick to the safe ground. Is this a sign of a lack of confidence? Those to whom I speak in Number 10 say so. Hence he chose six questions on Iraq during a recent PMQs.
And he reaches out for the class war attacks whenever he needs to make a gag. Hardly One Nation, think the Tories. Less than a year from the most tightly-contested election in modern history, the opposition leader should be doing anything but playing it safe. ■