7 Dec 2010

Ed Miliband: trouble at the top

Despite a sparkling start Ed Miliband faces some fierce criticism. Unless he can conquer PMQs the Labour leader is in danger of drowning instead of walking on water, writes broadcaster Peter McHugh.

Ed Miliband Labour leader

Ed Miliband does not believe in God but he might hope God believes in him since so few of his own side seem to.

Just 10 weeks ago he was elected the youngest leader of the Labour Party since the War denying his brother the job he thought his to take and pledging a new generation to take it into the future.

Suddenly 70 days later instead of walking on water he’s in danger of drowning in it.

With the coalition in some chaos, the Lib Dems in torment and the students back on the streets it should have been his week if not his winter.

Yet it is Ed and not Cameron and Clegg who finds himself in the firing line. Is he about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Shining start

All was going so well at the start. He sparkled at PMQs, outfoxed his opponents with sharp Shadow Cabinet appointments and shook off his Red Ed tag faster than Diane Abbott’s opposition to private schools.

Neil Kinnock declared “We’ve got our party back” in a statement that has proved prophetically true since he made it.

We can time when it started to go wrong back to early November when Ed announced he was taking two weeks paternity leave following the birth if his second son Samuel.

Although he had always said he would take time off actually doing it raised eyebrows.

If Ed thought his promise of a new beginning would placate those still not over the shock defeat of brother David he was in for a rude awakening.

“Politically correct but correct politically” asked one critic and even before Ed opened the first box of nappies his enemies were out of their traps.

With two whole weeks to play with it took just a few drinks and dinners to give Fleet Street the first faint scent of blood .There is nothing like a vacuum to create the conditions for a perfect storm.

If Ed thought his promise of a new beginning would placate those in his Party still not over the shock defeat of brother David he was in for a rude awakening. They declared the ship rudderless to anyone who would listen and with it all relatively quiet down the House of Commons plenty were ready. As Neil said, the party was back.

Ed, his back hardly well protected by those he had only recently beaten to power, was forced to place his trust on his own advisors.

Trouble at the top

Whatever was finally thought of Campbell, Mandelson and even Gordon Brown no one would deny they were a formidable team behind Tony Blair in his early days. Short on numbers and short on experience Ed’s team stuck in Norman Shaw annexe to Portcullis House found it hard to handle.

But if that was bad enough when Ed finally came back it got even worse.

A disastrous appearance on The Today Programme saw an over tired Ed dutifully disembowelled by John Humphrys over not quite knowing where to find the “squeezed middle” he said Labour was defending.

This was followed by an equally lacklustre performance at PMQs, where an obviously surprised David Cameron could not contain his delight at demolishing someone seen as a formidable opponent just a fortnight earlier.

The fact Ed had done so well in the recent past made his failure this time even greater in the eyes of enemies and friends alike.

Supporters were quick to dismiss these events as part of the rough and tumble of parliamentary life they might have got away with it but for one much more significant blow.

Second in command

It was only a couple of months since Ed had added to his early reputation with the appointment of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor.

Alan’s most important qualification for the job was that he wasn’t the man who really wanted it, Ed Balls. Not for the new Labour leader the corrosive clash with the Treasury boss which had so marked and fatally flawed the Blair/Brown era. He would run economic policy and Alan would go along with it. The trouble is no-one told Alan.

It started to go wrong when Alan announced Labour might scrap the 50p tax band at the next election. “No chance” said Ed, slapping down the Shadow Chancellor. Apparently unslapped Alan then repeated the possibility.

The fact Ed had done so well in the recent past made his failure this time even greater in the eyes of enemies and friends alike.

Ed then announced Labour’s position on tuition fees was to support a graduate tax. “Not sure that works” was Alan’s less than supine response.

The two men have adjacent offices in the suite allocated to the Leader of The Opposition. This was where David Cameron and George Osborne forged the close working relationship seen so vital to their present success.

But in an interview with the Financial Times the Shadow Chancellor revealed he spends almost all of his time in his other office in the House of Commons.

“I was over there yesterday. At least once a week we have a sit-down and talk about issues,” he told the FT, hardly the words of love and affection Ed would have hoped for and meeting “at least once a week” seems a less than urgent response the biggest economic crisis of the last 80 years.

The public have yet “to tune into Radio Ed” he said making it look that he too has problems with the wavelength his leader is on.

It is clear that getting the two of them tuned in together is Ed’s most important task.

Open goal?

It is said that brother David has now risen from his slough of despond and is putting himself about again sadly not on Ed’s side.

Unlike the Tories the Labour Party has a long tradition of keeping leaders way past their sell-by date but Ed’s somewhat ill-advised offer of a blank page on which to draw the party’s future could easily put an end to that.

Tomorrow is Prime Minister’s Questions again. Tuition fees, crime and punishment, school playing fields, VAT up in January, it should be an open goal. A win would be great, a score draw will do. Another defeat…

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was this year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award. Contact him at: peter@quiddityproductions.com