Ed should forget the polls...

It's my mate Ian he should worry about.

On the surface today's Times/Populus poll makes grim reading. Sixty three per cent of voters say they find it hard to imagine Ed Miliband as prime minister. Even more worryingly, 49 per cent of Labour's own supporters say they have difficulty believing he will follow Tony Blair and Gordon Brown across the threshold of Downing Street.

In the year since he was elected leader, amidst the cuts, riots and economic stagnation, Labour's poll rating has increased by 1 per cent.

So far so bad. But one poll does not make a summer; nor an autumn leadership crisis. And elsewhere it is possible to detect some more positive news.

According to the most recent MORI poll, for example, Ed Miliband has higher net personal ratings then either of the other party leaders; (Clegg -25, Cameron, -12, EM, -7). His personal ratings also stand at almost exactly the same level as David Cameron after a year as leader; -7 vs -6 (Nov 2006), -5 (Dec 2006), -9 (Jan 2007). And he has a higher satisfaction number (36 per cent satisfied) than Cameron had at any time until October 2007, nearly two years after he became leader.

Among Ed Miliband's staff there's thinly disguised derision at what they regard as an effort by the Times to commission a poll for what one source describes as "front page editorialising". They point out that a question asking for perceptions of an event that has not yet taken place is bound to elicit a negative response.

So much for statistics. What about the truth?

The truth is Ed Miliband has three significant problems; none insurmountable, but all potentially fatal.

The first goes by the technical term of my mate Ian. Ian has no interest in politics. He works in the City but, like most city workers, doesn't drive a Porsche, drown himself in Veuve Cilcquot in the Minories or squander the tax payer's bank bailout on the Cap d'Antibes. When the middle gets squeezed, Ian feels the pinch.

The other day I asked his view on the leader of Her Majesty's loyal opposition. "Ed Miliband?" he responded, "Come on. You're not being serious are you?"

An anecdote, yes. But a common one. Neil Kinnock suffered from antipathy. Blair suspicion. Brown hostility. But with Ed Miliband it's a lack of credibility. And for an opposition leader that's potentially the most destructive negative of them all.

Over the past few months Miliband has shown genuine leadership. On welfare reform, the responsibility agenda and hacking. At the TUC yesterday, even hardened trade unions officials voiced grudging respect for the directness of his tone and message.

Yet he remains trapped by the legacy of his first hundred days, and his inability to define himself during the vital period when people remained receptive to, and mildly interested in, the new leader of the Labour party. That window of opportunity has now closed, and the voters have made up their minds. Of course their minds can be changed, in the same way Tony Blair was transformed from Bambi to Stalin. But it's harder to reverse perceptions than shape them.

Ed Miliband's team feel the public and private polling indicate he's making headway in this area. "They're interested in him," said one Labour source. They also remain adamant it was important for him to observe what they call, "a period of grace and humility" in the aftermath of his leadership win.

"It wouldn't have been appropriate for us to come straight out of the election and started making up policy," said an aide, "by stepping back we've now given ourselves a platform to take a serious look at the issues facing the country."

The second problem, to use a genuine buzzword, are the "optics".

At the moment Ed Miliband simply does not look the part. "The TUC speech is a classic example," said one shadow cabinet source. "You read it on paper and you think 'hey, that's pretty good'. But then you seem him on the news. And it misses. The delivery and body language are just all wrong. And like it or not, TV is the medium through which he's being judged."

Again, Miliband's team reject this analysis."People who are saying that are behind the curve," said an insider. While they acknowledge problems at the start of his leadership, they say he is maturing, pointing to the modulation of his speaking style to allow for a slower and clearer delivery. "There's a poise and strength that wasn't there before," said one observer.

Poise or not, his problems persist, especially around the 'S' word. Strategy. Tactically Miliband has shown himself to be a shrewd operator, as his brother found to his cost. But he is yet to demonstrate and ability to construct a coherent long term narrative out of his myriad, and at times contradictory, political positions.

A classic example relates to his posture on the deficit. Yesterday's TUC speech contained a very significant passage in which he appeared to recalibrate his stance on the cuts and public spending; "We are not going to be able to spend our way to a new economy," he warned, before adding: "I sometimes hear it said that Labour opposes every cut. Some people might wish that was true. But it's not. We committed ourselves to halving the deficit over four years. That would mean cuts."

Yet no sooner had Ed Miliband torn the "deficit denier" badge from his breast than he was scrabbling around for a needle and thread and desperately trying to sew it back on again.

"Sources close to Mr Miliband argue that the deficit is not going to be the big issue at the next election", reported the Times this morning, "Mr Miliband's office continues to dispute claims that public spending was too high before the financial crisis and say that the Tories supported their spending plans during this period."

"This is insane," said one shadow cabinet source. "The deficit is the issue that will define us. This is the sort of nonsense you'd normally only get from Ed Balls."

Friends of Labour's leader claim the electorate cannot picture him as prime minister because he does not yet hold that office. To his enemies it's proof he never will. It's certainly true that today's reports of his death are premature. But it's also true that a year into his leadership Ed Miliband has some serious problems to address.

My advice is forget the polls and focus groups. Go buy my mate Ian a pint.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.