The Tories hope (and Labour fears) that the political weather is changing

The media are sounding bored with the story of everything going Labour's way.

There is a lot of political meteorology going on in Westminster at the moment. MPs are acutely sensitive to what they see as seasonal changes in the way they are portrayed by the media. They aren’t wrong to detect that press coverage tends to shift in weather patterns, with a prevailing wind blowing at the backs of some candidates and hard in the faces of others.

Mostly, those trends track opinion polls and perceptions of one party leader’s performance. But they can also become self-sustaining – feedback loops of positive or negative coverage. Besides, journalists hunt in packs. Once a pattern for coverage is established it can fix a distorting lens on the news agenda, through which every detail is filtered. Thus, for example, when Gordon Brown was enjoying his short honeymoon as Prime Minister – respected for seriousness of purpose and an earnest demeanour – David Cameron was going through one of those periods where a lack of policy heft was drawing criticism.

It was summer and images of the Conservative leader in shorts on the beach seemed to suggest a boyish unreadiness for office, as compared to Brown’s besuited seriousness. Fast forward a year. Brown’s leadership was in crisis and Cameron was looking more like the next Prime Minister. Suddenly the same holiday snaps made the Tory leader look like an ordinary guy, at ease with himself and the country; his Labour counterpart was robotic and aloof. The people had not changed but in journalistic terms, the story was different.

At the start of this year, Ed Miliband looked weak. David Cameron was enjoying a poll bounce after his (non) veto of a European treaty. Labour MPs were anxious and chattering nervously about the inadequacy of their leadership. The whole opposition project looked shaky and everything Miliband did seemed to feed into that narrative. A misspelled tweet referring to an 80s quiz programme as “blackbusters” instead of “blockbusters” was treated as an enormous gaffe, practically rocking the foundations of the Labour party.

Then came a Labour spring. George Osborne’s budget failed. It got tangled up in a whole bunch of bungled policy presentations and botched media performances now known collectively as the “omnishambles”. Suddenly, Miliband was to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister. Divisions in the coalition were all potentially fatal; the Tory leadership was in question. Everything Cameron did has subsequently been shone through the new jaundiced lens. Take, for example, reports that the Prime Minister sipped wine while administering his recent reshuffle – a fairly unremarkable detail in most respects. Except it was treated as proof that Cameron is heartless and arrogant. He quaffed claret and failed to offer a glass to his brutally despatched underlings, like a drunken lord dismissing his downtrodden staff.  Two years ago it would have been evidence of what a supremely confident and relaxed man he is, effortlessly carrying out the duties of high office when his predecessor was surly and uptight. Cameron the natural.

Obviously these changes in presentation are informed by choices the politicians themselves make. Mistakes and successes are amplified; confidence breeds good coverage, insecurity invites a kicking. The budget provoked bad headlines because it was not, by most standards, a good budget. Miliband got a fairer hearing because he held his nerve, made some judgement calls and said things that forced his party and the media to pay closer attention.

Nonetheless, the press pack gets bored with any particular story and impatient for a new one. Many Westminster fingers are currently being held aloft, sensing the wind changing. So Miliband could be Prime Minister? Really? So what’s he really on about? And what’s all this about friction with Ed Balls? That’s the story, surely. And wait a minute! Could those be green shoots of economic recovery just visible puncturing the arid soil? A bit of growth and surely the Tories can start closing the gap in the polls. Of course they’d be behind mid-term when forced to take unpopular decisions, but compare the personal ratings of Miliband and Cameron. When it comes down to it, the nation has a clear favourite to be Prime Minister – this could be the colour of political coverage for the new season.

Everything depends, of course, on whether the leaders and their parties can get through party conferences without any mishaps. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the whole direction of politics is dictated by mood swings of editors, reporters and commentators with short attention spans. But I detect from Labour and Tories alike (in the form of anxiety on the former side; hope on the latter) that a different weather system is drifting in.

On the Conservative side, much depends on whether or not a huge Boris Johnson-shaped cloud rains on Cameron’s conference parade. There is clearly concern in Downing Street about the PM being upstaged.

For Labour, concern is centred on the leader’s speech. Last year’s intervention from the podium got mixed reviews to say the least. Only later, when the weather had changed, did it become conventional wisdom to see Miliband’s disquisition on predatory and productive modes of capitalism as a perceptive, agenda-setting insight. Now there is pressure on the leader to advance his position with a more concrete – and more pithily phrased offer; something that starts to sketch the outlines of a winnable campaign. The advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband, not terribly helpful but certainly true and applicable to Cameron too, and Nick Clegg for that matter: “Just don’t screw it up.”

The pre-conference advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband: "Just don’t screw it up." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.