The Conservative Party is unsure whether Ed Miliband is ridiculous or dangerous. Tory optimists think the Labour leader’s glamourless style breaches some unwritten prime ministerial admissions code, meaning voters will bar his entry to No 10. They expect the opposition’s lead in opinion polls to vanish once the nation seriously contemplates placing a fragile economy in Ed’s buttery fingers.
Conservative pessimists have more respect. They know that belittling Miliband’s manner doesn’t alter the electoral maths that make him the likeliest bet to be prime minister after 2015. If Labour hangs on to disgruntled Lib Dems, and angry Tories continue to side with Ukip – both plausible scenarios – crucial seats in the Midlands and northern England will be unwinnable for David Cameron. A handful of Conservatives even admit that Miliband has played a weak hand with guile, shoring up the unity of the left while the right is divided.
Tory differences over how seriously to take Miliband are inseparable from the question of how easy it will be to woo voters who are currently sojourning with Nigel Farage. Downing Street strategists expect them to come back to Cameron in droves once they realise that their dalliance risks creating a monstrous lefty prime minister. Casual Ukip supporters are supposed to grasp that the things they want – less immigration, benefit cuts, a referendum on Europe – are available only under a Conservative government. Though braced for a strong Ukip performance in the European parliamentary elections in May, senior Tories are quietly confident that the tide will then recede.
This view presumes that Farage’s supporters make rational choices based on a menu of preferred policies. Some Tories doubt it. In their constituencies, they encounter “Kamikaze Ukip” – people who are so filled with hatred of the political class and Cameron in particular that they might swallow the prospect of a Miliband-led government, which they would expect to fail promptly, if that is the price for provoking a purgative Tory crisis.
Ukip’s organisational backbone is built from former Tory activists. They see the Prime Minister as an arrogant, unprincipled toff who has wrecked the party they once loved and whose electoral punishment is a task of moral urgency. There is sure to be a drift back to the Tories in 2015 but it doesn’t take many stubborn Ukippers – perhaps as little as 6 per cent of voters – to rob the Conservatives of power. The calculation that depresses some Tory backbenchers is that the alliance of people who want Cameron out at all costs, though ideologically disparate, is bigger and more motivated than the coalition of people who want to reward him with another term in office.
If that is true, Labour can be the biggest party in the next parliament by default. Yet opposition MPs are reluctant to celebrate this bounty. There is some disbelief that the catastrophic defeat of 2010 can be overcome in a single term. There is also reluctance to credit Miliband with engineering their positional advantage. It feels unearned. A tiny victory delivered by the perverse interaction of a hard-right insurgency and an obsolescent voting system doesn’t exactly make a social-democratic renaissance.
Then there is Miliband’s public image, the source of so much Tory comfort and something that everyone in Labour knows is a problem but only a tiny number of top advisers are authorised to discuss. The shadow cabinet has had many presentations of polling data but none refers to the leader’s personal ratings.
Insiders say the arrival of Spencer Livermore, a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown who has returned as an election strategist, has brought more focus to the question of how Miliband’s candidacy might best be sold. The preference so far has been for town hall-style meetings in front of live audiences, where he performs well. It is a device that can be pitched as a break from sterile Westminster convention but it can’t replace the mass reach of TV. The discussion now is about the broadcast formats that work for Miliband – what balance to strike between the heavyweight news shows and daytime sofa slots and how to play televised leader debates. Aides insist that Miliband can confound his critics in that arena, going in as the underdog against the famously glossy Cameron and emerging as the more substantial figure.
Miliband’s team recognises that the public still needs to get to know him better. (Tory pollsters say voters have seen enough and aren’t impressed.) But part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote. He is wedded to the Mount Sinai model of leadership – disappearing into the clouds for weeks and emerging with new positions on tablets of stone.
He successfully stamped his authority on the shadow cabinet in last autumn’s reshuffle, leaving none in doubt that he can be ruthless. Yet despite having elevated a cadre of young “Milibandite” protégés, the Labour leader still seems isolated. His party backs him because he can win, yet very few people even in the shadow cabinet really know his mind. They can’t anticipate his instincts or claim to speak on his behalf on a range of issues – welfare, education, crime, immigration, Europe. That means they must stick to a narrow script or stay silent for fear of going off-message, which in turn makes it hard for the public to get a rounded sense of what Labour is all about.
So far Miliband’s inscrutability has served him well. After three years, the Tories still don’t have the measure of him, which is why some of them think he can’t possibly win and others say he can’t lose. It is good for Miliband that his enemies don’t know what to make of him. The problem is that neither do his friends.