Man with the Mirror
HIS best headlines were about the wedding to Justine and the nose job. His ratings dipped as low as Iain Duncan Smith’s torrid Tory leadership. He’s been humiliated at the Despatch Box by smooth-talking Dave Cameron. He won some easy by-elections, but lost loyal Scotland to the SNP. Did the Labour Party make a fatal error by choosing young Ted?
It certainly looked so to many Westminster insiders and some in his Shadow Cabinet. But that was before a white knight galloped to his rescue, in the unlikely shape of Rupert Murdoch. The explosive impact of “Hackgate”, with its revelations of criminal phonetapping by the News of the World and the targeting of murder victim Milly Dowler gave Ed Miliband the kind of political opportunity that leaders of the Opposition can only dream about. And he didn’t flunk it.
It was naïve of backbench Tory MPs to bleat about “opportunism.” Politics, especially Opposition politics, is all about making the most of opportunities as they arise, whether you had a hand in making them or are just the thankful beneficiary.
Miliband was sure-footed from the first, calling for a judge-led inquiry into the excesses of Murdoch’s flagship Sunday newspaper, then an investigation into alleged collusion and bribery in the Metropolitan police force, and finally for the resignation of Rebekah Brooks as chief executive of News International.
He got all three, a hat trick against a stumbling Prime Minister who hopped from one foot to another and always landed on the back one. The News of the World is no more, and Miliband scored a direct hit on Cameron’s judgement in hiring the paper’s ex-editor Andy Coulson as his chief spin doctor.
The question haunting Ed’s MPs, but even more so the trade unions who got him the job, is “Can he keep it up?” The evidence is mixed. Breaks like Hackgate are rare, and Miliband can’t rely on one scandal to carry him through the conference season and into the next session of Parliament, when George Osborne will deliver an eyecatching Budget Statement.
The long recess served to dissipate public wrath, and Ed’s poll performance with it. With the economy stagnant – official – voter dissatisfaction returned to more basic issues, and Miliband sought to tap into that discontent with an attack on the “Big Six” energy companies which control 99 per cent of the gas and electricity supply market. Their price hikes of almost twenty per cent through the summer months infuriated consumers.
Miliband demands a break-up of their virtual monopoly, opening up the market to the likes of Tesco and Virgin. But his words washed against a rock of ministerial indifference. The ConDems are in no mood to pick a fight with such powerful vested interests.
He also championed the cause of workers at Bombardier’s train-making plant in Derby , faced with 1,400 redundancies and possible closure after Transport Secretary Philip Hammond gave a £1.4 billion contract for Thameslink rolling stock to the German firm Siemens.
Here, he was on surer ground, with support from the manufacturing and rail unions and even some Tories. Coming so soon after his refusal to back strikes over pensions by public service workers, his stand may go some way to recovering lost ground ahead of his first appearance as Labour leader at the Trades Union Congress in London.
That one’s easy. The big challenge comes two weeks later when the ordeal is repeated not just before the faithful but in front of the international media at his party’s conference in Liverpool. He’ll be judged by the harshest imaginable criteria. Roy Hattersley, who knows more than most the nature of the Labour leadership challenge and voted for him, remarks:
“The younger Miliband is a true social democrat, with the evangelising zeal that is essential to a successful social-democratic party. That distinguishes him from Blair and the Blairites and provides the ideological basis for the fightback that is yet fully to begin.”
Hattersley’s supportive, but scarcely flattering, verdict came in a review of the first biography of Miliband. Ed, The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader, didn’t make the best-seller list, but then neither has Labour’s no-longer-new leader. “A disappointment,” said one union leader to whom I spoke ahead of the TUC conference. “He’s on probation.”