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. 

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.