Is Ed Miliband a) hopeless, b) on course to become Prime Minister or c) both?

22 August 2013

12:15 PM

22 August 2013

12:15 PM

I have never quite understood Ed Miliband’s appeal. He always reminds me of Cuthbert Cringeworthy from The Bash Street Kids. I find it hard to imagine him becoming Prime Minister. Something just feels wrong about that. I’m not alone in wondering about this. Brian Wilson, the former energy minister, wrote yesterday that Miliband still has a kind of credibility problem. People just don’t think he’s quite ready for the top job. They may not be able to say exactly why they’re unimpressed by Miliband; they just know they are.

Not so fast my friend, responds John McTernan today. Ignore all the chattering and blethering about Labour’s slide in the polls and focus on the core picture: Miliband is still likely to be leader of the largest party after the next election. Everything is fine. Stop fretting. You can see why every Labour MP has tweeted McTernan’s job application article.

It is, of course, possible that McTernan and Wilson are both right. Miliband could be hopeless and still win. He begins, after all, with several advantages. First, the constituency boundaries favour Labour. Secondly, there is no sign of a Tory revival in the north and Scotland. Thirdly, the Iraq War votes Labour lost to the Lib Dems will either return to Labour or stay at home in 2015. These are all high-value cards for Labour.


And he may also be helped by the Conservatives who seem prepared to abandon the very things that helped them back to power in the first place. As McTernan puts it: Cameron’s narrow margin as the largest party at Westminster was gained by a relentless centrism. The difference between being a centrist and a right-wing party is the margin between victory and defeat.

Quite. As McTernan – who is, I should say, someone I’ve known since he spent a spell as a columnist for Scotland on Sunday in the early days of this century – concludes:

Cameron has lost his way because he has forgotten the lesson he and George Osborne learnt painfully in opposition. When he proclaimed that he would let sunshine have the day, Cameron was appealing to a deep-seated emotion among British voters. They wanted, once more, to feel that their – and their nation’s – best days were ahead of them. This is not simply a matter of numbers – pledging to increase jobs, or raise real wages or even grow the economy. It’s more basic than that. Voters want to believe that Britain can be great again. Emotional patriotism and economic optimism have been thrown away by the current government. They are there for the taking. Ed Miliband has the numbers, and the field is clear.

This might be a trifle optimistic but, broadly speaking, it is true. At least for now. There is still time for an economic recovery that will allow Cameron and Osborne to argue that, taking power at a time when Britain was at a low ebb, they have steered the ship of state to better waters where the sun is shining and there’s a fair wind set for sail.

But if the Tories are to defeat Miliband they also need to choose how to define him. Is he weak? He may look it but he knifed his brother and picked fights with Rupert Murdoch and the Trade Unions. Is he hopeless, then? Perhaps. But prove it!

Most of all, however, where are the Tories going to win the seats that will carry them to a majority? What parts of the country are going to be more disposed to look favourably upon Cameron and Osborne than was the case in 2010? The Tories haven’t got more than 40% of the vote since 1992. How are they even going to make it to, say, 38% this time? (And how does he keep Labour below, say, 32%?)

I rather agree with Brian Wilson that Ed Miliband hasn’t yet made a convincing case for why he should become Prime Minister. But while I’d very much like to think John McTernan is wrong I’m not at all sure he is. Miliband might not need to be very good to win.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Cornelius Bonkers

    Yes, of course Miliband has a credibility problem. But he was brought up in a nest of communist “intellectuals” so his disadvantages in modern marketised politics are many and probably insurmountable. But socialisation and ideology aren’t his foremost problems. The truth is that with the possible exception of the gurning gargoyle Balls – who is in a league of his own – he cuts a most physically and personally unattractive sight on our screens. I for one think Cuthbert Cringeworthy – a rather endearing character with not a little charisma – would be fuming were he to be here to read your piece…

  • Peter Stroud

    Miliband is a problem because he, and his brother Dave, were presented by Labour as brilliant statesmen/politicians. Just as Brown and Balls were trumpeted as brilliant economists. Neither Brown or Balls come up to scratch, neither do the Milibands. Thankfully brother Dave has taken the money and fled.

    But the way things look at present, Ed need do nothing because Cameron will lose the election. Because his deputy reneged on the deal to support boundary changes, in a fit of pique. Cameron has not ticked enough boxes with the electorate to win, without somewhat equalising constituency sizes.

  • roger

    They need to get Darling to kick the Miliband/ Balls clique into oblivion.

  • andagain

    Ed Milliband would seem to have two allies in the fight to become PM: the Labour Party, and the Conservatives. Neither of them want David Cameron to be Prime Minister either.

  • William Haworth

    The Euro elections in 2014 are consistently ignored by commentators, as in the UK we don’t really care about them (the UE is something that is done to us, not something we participate in). However, if UKIP win the vote in 2014 (hardly impossible), it would send such a shock wave through the Tory party that it would change the dynamic between UKIP and Conservatives, and cause a revision of the Tory’s policy on Europe. This could defuse the UKIP vote-stealing threat, and then all bets are off regarding Cameron’s chances of hanging on to No. 10.

  • rolandfleming

    I predict the lowest voter turnout in history. And a concomitantly feeble mandate for whoever nominally ‘wins’.

  • James Strong

    Miliband did not knife his brother.
    Miliband did not knife his brother any more than he knifed Ed Balls or any other leadership contender, or any more than Ed Balls tried to knife both Milibands.
    David Miliband had no entitlement to the leadership that was then snatched away.
    Like every other aspiring leader he had to go through an election, as did Ed Milband.
    And Ed Miliband won it.
    You might not have wanted that result; you might think that the weighting of votes is not optimum but you cannot, reasonably, maintain the position that Ed Miliband knifed his brother.

  • HJ777

    “They may not be able to say exactly why they’re unimpressed by Miliband; they just know they are.”

    I can say exactly. He never says anything of any substance. It’s all just waffle. It’s not just that I disagree with his outlook (although I do) it’s that he comes across as not having had an original thought in his life and that he has no concrete ideas on anything. It’s painful to watch.

    • roger

      Having a leader with Balls is not enough.

    • AtMyDeskToday

      I agree, but the real problem is that your 2nd para applies equally to Call-Me-Dave.

    • rtj1211

      The most impressive politicians say what they say based on at least one generation of adult experience. You are always more credible if you speak from experience, rather than from mantras.

  • Keith D

    Yes,Yes and Yes I’m afraid.Camerons spinelessness and the rise of UKIP will ensure a reduced Tory vote.After Labour shafted the electorate one could have expected the marginalised british working family to never ever consider voting for them again.But with the polls showing what they are it seems the Turkeys want Xmas after all.Why do they think the NHS is falling all about them??.They cant get a house??Their kids cant get a job??Barbarity on our streets.we know it was Labours deliberate immigration debacle that led to all this.But,hey,if it wears a red rosette,its all just fine and fluffy.Cameron should be hammering these points home and he’d win.He wont….spineless.

  • CraigStrachan

    The Tories need 20-odd English Lib Dem seats – from the West Country, from suburban London and the SE – to be in with a chance of a (small) majority.

    And they still just might double their haul of Westminster seats from Scotland!

    • Jambo25

      No they wont. Mundell will be very lucky to hang onto his seat. I live down there and that’s the feeling. As for the rest of Scotland. Where would any other seat come from? Any that the Lib Dems lose will probably go Labour or SNP.

      • CraigStrachan

        The Tories could win Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk with the right candidate. The right candidate being John Lamont.

  • sir_graphus

    I’m afraid the electoral maths says that Milliband will be PM. It’s unavoidable.

  • JosefK

    John McTernan’s recent track record in Australia and Scotland hardly inspires confidence in the accuracy of his predictions or his ability to tune into what voters are thinking.
    Another problem for Miliband is, of course, a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Labour currently sends 41 Scottish MPs to Westminster, compared to a solitary Conservative. Even if this result were replicated in a post-Yes 2015 UK General Election, serious questions would have to be asked about the legitimacy of a government propped up by Members who would be departing within a year or two. Up until now, the number of Scottish Labour MPs has rarely made any difference to who rules in Westminster. Under the above scenario and in the event of a close vote in 2015, it would be ironic, to say the least, if Miliband had eventually to rely on them to gain power. West Lothian is kids’ stuff by comparison.

    • Dan Grover

      One has to imagine that, in such circumstances, an election would take place on the day that Scotland left – not because Ed would want it, but because it would quickly become clear that he didn’t control the house when he ceased to pass any legislation or win any votes, and that’s such a “bad look” politicially that I think it would be in his best interests to ensure an election is planned well in advance of that situation.

      • JosefK

        That is one possibility, but still leaves a couple of problems. If the negotiations take around 2 years, as has been suggested, the Scottish MPs would be leaving around the second half of 2016. Miliband would therefore be setting a date for an election just over a year after forming the government – hardly a mandate for any meaningful government programme. And that still does not solve the problem of Scottish Labour MPs influencing the future of a country they will soon no longer be part of. How democratic is that?

        • Dan Grover

          Not terribly, but unless you preclude the possibility of a region or group of people ever ceding from a nation, it’s somewhat unavoidable – either they have a say on our future, or we don’t give them a say and then their people are under a government over which they have no control for a few years. I think parts of a country breaking off are such a rare occurrence that we’ll just have to live with a little undemocratic decision making! Someone has to, after all.

          And that’s true re: Mili – since we’ll know in 2014 what the result is, I imagine that the timetable for another GE will actually be decided, cross party, before the 2015 election even occurs, should Scotland choose to leave. We are already discussing the problem now, so it can’t blind-side anyone. Curious!

          • JosefK

            I agree up to a point, and certainly on the issue that voters in Scotland would still have the right to be represented at Westminster in the interim period between a Yes vote and eventual independence. I am not sure, however, that voters in the remaining UK would be quite as relaxed as you are about Scottish MPs making decisions that shape the future of the rUK.
            As to your second point, you and I are discussing the problem but there is conspicuous silence from the UK political parties, exemplified by Cameron’s refusal to ‘pre-negotiate’ on anything associated with the terms of independence. Obviously,this is because they do not want to admit the possibility of it happening, but that does not make the potential problem go away.

            • Dan Grover

              Regarding your first point, the West Lothian question might get a few feathers ruffled on Question Time but for the most part, most people either don’t know or don’t care about it; Whilst Scottish MP’s disappearing is a little more overt, the idea of Scottish MP’s voting for things that don’t affect their constituents is not a new one, nor is it one that anyone really talks about.

              I don’t necessarily blame Cameron for his stance – if you’re in the No camp (and he is, of course – as am I) then pre negotiations will inevitably lend authority and respectability to the opposing argument. That authority and respectability may be deserved, but tactically it’s a bad move to offer it. You’re right though, it doesn’t make the problem go away – but I think waiting til after the vote is fine. If the vote were planned for post-2015 GE, they’d be foolish to wait, but as it stands there’s around a year for the people to make up their minds on what they want to happen, with the parties free to offer this (or not) at the GE.

              • Dan Grover

                That last point wasn’t very clear. What I mean is that any proposed solution can then be legitimised by a vote – whatever happens to the Scottish MP’s will be the will of whatever party wins the 2015 election. Whilst the result may not be democratic, at least the decision on what to do can be!

                • JosefK

                  Perhaps, but that will be a hard sell for the Labour Party to Scottish Labour MPs such as Sarwar, Davidson or Curran who will become even more irrelevant than they are now.
                  On the other hand, the West Lothian question may well interest only a few nerds when expressed as such, but screaming newspaper headlines in autumn 2015 along the lines of “LABOUR GOVERNMENT RAISES UK TAXES – THANKS TO DEPARTING SCOTTISH MPS” might ruffle a few more feathers.

    • Wessex Man

      It has actually mattered a quite a few occasions.

      • JosefK

        Not to my knowledge. Could you name these occasions please?

        • Dan Grover

          Historically it hasn’t mattered (though one could argue that a government having a larger or smaller majority may affect their legislative agenda, so in that sense it can change things) but if you look at the trends of elections, Scotland and the South of England have never been as far apart than they are now. This has been an increasingly prevalent trend over the last 30 years or so. So whilst historically there have been only a few occasions in which the Scottish MPs specifically have made a government, it’s something that the trends suggest would be more and more important going forwards. Whether it’ll be *that* important, I don’t know, but looking at data from 30+ years ago is, I think on this issue, somewhat unilluminating.

    • Mynydd

      One must be realistic, a yes vote for Scottish independence is only the start of the process of them leaving the UK. Take North Sea oil, who owns it will not be decided over night, it’s far to important for both parties. I can see it taking ten years before Scotland actually become independent and with the Scottish MPs leaving Westminster.

      • JosefK

        18 months to 2 years is the figure that constitutional experts seem to agree on. It would be in neither party’s interest to drag the process out much longer. The division of the North Sea is a matter of international law that both parties would presumably be keen to observe.