The bar was set high, and Ed Miliband has cleared it

"An audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister."

The Labour leader took a risk today. There was a technical risk: he spoke without notes, which can go wrong in many ways. And the speech was long, which exponentially increases the danger of stumbling and losing the audience. But that is a small practical obstacle compared to the tactical gamble that his speech represented, which was – in effect – advertising itself as an audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister.

He didn’t set it out in quite those terms, but throughout the week his team has been allowing the idea to float around that this would be a defining piece of oration. The Miliband camp took the highly hazardous step of acknowledging that there had been flaws in the way their candidate presented himself and admitting that voters are under-whelmed by the Labour leader – or downright dismissive. So expectations were ramped up, which is the opposite of what usually happens. (The standard line at these conferences is “it’s only a speech, why is everyone so excited, of course it’s not a make or break moment.” Etc.)

So the Miliband operation set the bar high. Luckily for them, the Labour leader appears to have cleared it. He seemed much more confident than he has done on similar occasions in the past; much more in control of the mood in the room and much more assertive in delivering his message. He got a few good laughs in the right places. His theme - “One Nation” - was a pretty audacious raid on Tory language and, as a fusion of traditional left appeals to solidarity and a patriotic idiom more commonly associated with the right, it clearly has potential as a platform to reach out to a wide section of the electorate. His aides are busy now describing it as a radical vision. (That, of course, is something they always do.)

The obvious criticism was that Miliband is still travelling very light on policy and still skirts over the question of tricky spending pledges. It wasn’t exactly a macho demonstration of tough choices and a trampling of party shibboleths. (That really isn’t Miliband’s style.) He is wide open to the charge of policy flimsiness. No doubt the defence will come out that David Cameron was no more heavily freighted with practical policy at an equivalent point in his time in opposition. The mid-term challenge is to attract voters attention and sustain their interest in a way that makes them think they might be looking at their next Prime Minister. That was the explicit task that Ed Miliband set himself this week. Did he pass the audition? Too early to tell. But I suspect the party will come away more confident that they can talk about Prime Minister Miliband and the Conservatives will be a little bit less complacent in their assumption that no one is listening.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband acknowledges the applause after delivering his keynote on October 02, 2012 Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.