Don't worry, Ed, the political nerds are having the last laugh

Across the world, unflashy candidates are triumphing against their allegedly charismatic counterparts.

The good natured leg-pulling about his Desert Island Discs selections reinforces Ed Miliband’s reputation as the uncoolest kid on the political block. With choices including Robbie Williams's "Angels", Miliband is telling us he is not fazed by being written up as 'nerdy Ed' - British politics’ pre-eminent Boston Red Sox fan.

This is possibly a cunning tactic. Displaying a high degree of self-awareness makes it difficult for political attacks about his appearance and tastes to have much purchase. In what is shaping up to be a dirty general election campaign, making a virtue of his anti-charisma may be a smart strategic move.

But does Miliband look like a prime minister? This is the more serious charge often levelled against him, with poll after poll highlighting the Labour leader’s credibility problem when it comes to voters imagining him stood on the steps of Downing Street. Indeed, if you Google the phrase "Ed Miliband doesn't look like a prime minister" you get 335,000 hits. Which does, however, beg the supplementary question: just what does a prime minister look like?

It’s a fair bet Margaret Thatcher didn’t look like conventional PM material in the mid-1970s. John Major, pilloried throughout his premiership for his greyness, won more votes in 1992 than any party leader before or since (even more than Tony Blair in 1997). And although the great Winston Churchill described Clement Attlee as "a modest man with much to be modest about", it was Attlee who kicked Churchill out on to the Downing Street kerb, leading Labour to its landslide victory in 1945.

Across the Channel, François Hollande is proof that an unflashy candidate can win a national election, even against a charismatic showman like Nicolas Sarkozy. While the continued electoral success of German Chancellor Angela Merkel tells us that the defiantly uncharismatic can not only win, but keep winning. (As "Aussie John Major" John Howard also showed during his decade as Australia’s Prime Minister.) 

It’s a matter of having countervailing virtues to overcome a lack of Kennedy-esque stardust. Good fortune in terms of facing a wounded incumbent helps level the field for the uncharismatic leader, as does gaining a reputation for quiet diligence in the job.

A good example of this is Cathy Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. She faced snide accusations that she wasn’t up to the job of representing the EU in the hallowed portals of international diplomacy when she was appointed in 2009, yet she is silencing her critics with her central role in helping broker the pivotal Iranian nuclear deal.

So rather than the no-hoper that political received opinion would have us believe, Ed Miliband may be the latest in a long line of political nerds to have the last laugh at the ballot box. Oh, and for the record, if you Google "David Cameron doesn’t look like a Prime Minister" you get 7,670,000 results.

Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.