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Cameron's weakness is Miliband's strength

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

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

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.