Cameron's weakness is Miliband's strength

The electorate doesn't need to like its prime ministers but lack of strength never plays well.

Forget the LOLs. The most surprising moment of Rebekah Brooks's evidence to the Leveson inquiry on Friday came when the former News International boss confirmed that David Cameron really did think Ed Miliband had him "on the run" last July.

Asked about a reported message -- sent via a third party -- that read "sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as you have been to me, but Ed Miliband had me on the run”, Brooks admitted that the gist of the communication was correct.

Credit then to Francis Elliot of the Times and James Hanning of the Independent, whose scoop features in the updated biography of the PM, Cameron: Practically a Conservative. And hands up those of us who thought the reported message was too far fetched.

It's not so much that Miliband wasn't making life awkward for Cameron over News of the World/Milly Dowler revelations last summer; it's more the unlikelihood that Cameron would ever admit (even in private) that the Labour leader was besting him. Cameron may not be the "arrogant posh boy" of Nadine Dorries's imagining but he's not one to show weakness.

What's interesting to observe is that the electoral dividend Miliband gained by going after Rupert Murdoch and co last July has echoes today as Cameron suffers by association with the same people.

A YouGov poll in today's Sunday Times not only puts Labour 12 points ahead of the Tories (Labour 43 per cent, Conservatives 31 per cent, Lib Dems 10 per cent, others 17 per cent), but it shows a personal ratings swing towards Miliband and away from Cameron.

In the race to be the least disliked (this is modern politics, after all), Miliband is on minus 23, up from minus 33, while Cameron is on minus 29

As YouGov's Anthony Wells notes: 

This is the first time [Miliband] has enjoyed a higher approval rating than Cameron since last July (just after the hacking scandal), and only the second time he has done so since being elected as Labour leader.

Moreover, when asked whether Cameron is a strong or weak leader, 40 per cent say he is weak. That's up 10 points from when the same question was asked in March. Meanwhile, only 26 per cent think he's strong. 

The electorate doesn't need to like its prime ministers but perceptions of weakness never play well.

Miliband has often struggled to present himself as a decisive leader -- too often portrayed as in the pockets of the unions, in the shadow of his elder brother or at the receiving end from Cameron at PMQs. But right now it's the PM who is failing to convince people that he's in charge. 

The ever readable Alex Massie summed up Cameron's problem in a Spectator blog post entitled "Weak, Weak, Weak: Cameron's Brooks Affair Will Haunt Him". Massie wrote:

The more details emerge of Cameron's contacts with Brooks and the rest of the News International set the worse it looks like being for the PM.

The polls certainly appear to reflect that view.

 

Ed Miliband and David Cameron, 9 May 2012. Credit: Getty Images

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Photo: Getty
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If the cuts are necessary, where's Philip Hammond's deficit target gone?

The Chancellor ripped up his predecessor's plans and has no plan to replace them. What's going on?

Remember austerity?

I’m not talking about the cuts to public services, which are very much still ongoing. I’m talking about the economic argument advanced by the Conservatives from the financial crisis in 2007-8 up until the European referendum: that unlesss the British government got hold of its public finances and paid down its debt, the United Kingdom would be thrown into crisis as its creditors would get nervous.

That was the rationale for a programme of cuts well in excess of anything their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, campaigned on in the run-up to the 201 election. It was the justification for cuts to everything from English language lessons to library hours. It was the stick used to beat Labour in the 2015 election. Now it justifies cuts to payments to families that lose a parent, to mental health services and much else besides.

Which is odd, because there’s something missing from this election campaign: any timetable from the Tories about when, exactly, they intend to pay all that money back. Neither the government’s day-to-day expenditure nor its existing debt can meaningfully be said to be any closer to being brought into balance than they were in 2010.

To make matters worse, Philip Hammond has scrapped George Osborne’s timetable and plan to secure both a current account surplus and to start paying off Britain’s debts. He has said he will bring forward his own targets, but thus far, none have been forthcoming.

Which is odd, because if the nervousness of Britain’s creditors is really something to worry about, their causes for worry have surely increased since 2015, not decreased. Since then, the country has gone from a byword for political stability to shocking the world with its vote to leave the European Union. The value of its currency has plummetted. Its main opposition party is led by a man who, according to the government at least, is a dangerous leftist, and, more to the point, a dangerous leftist that the government insists is on the brink of taking power thanks to the SNP. Surely the need for a clear timetable from the only party offering “strong and stable” government is greater than ever?

And yet: the government has no serious plan to close the deficit and seems more likely to add further spending commitments, in the shape of new grammar schools, and the possible continuation of the triple lock on pensions.  There seems to be no great clamour for Philip Hammond to lay out his plans to get the deficit under control.

What gives?

Could it all, possibly, have been a con to advance the cause of shrinking the state?

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

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