David Cameron with Ed Miliband before the state opening of Parliament in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The sound of Labour silence: Miliband can’t rely on the Tories to keep hurting Cameron for him

Labour MPs fear going into battle without defences against predictable Tory onslaughts.

A lot of politics involves trying to force your opponent to talk about one thing when he or she would much rather be talking about something else. For months now Labour has been haranguing the government on depressed living standards because, in Ed Miliband’s view, that is the feature of Britain’s economy that David Cameron would most gladly ignore.

The Tories tried skirmishing on this front, without success. The Chancellor backed a minimum wage hike; the Prime Minister promised to make energy companies behave better. They just looked as if they were dancing to Miliband’s tune. Now Downing Street has accepted that the cost of living is Labour’s terrain and avoids giving battle there. Inside No 10, soaring gas bills are filed alongside the NHS as an issue to be wished away, preferably in silence.

As is customary, the Chancellor used the Budget to change the subject. Less in keeping with tradition, the leader of the opposition refused to notice, jeering at Osborne for not talking about things Labour wanted him to talk about. It was not Miliband’s finest hour, as even his allies admit.

What really worries opposition MPs is not that their leader didn’t refer to the Chancellor’s big pension reforms in the Commons but that he and Ed Balls seemed slow to grasp that they were significant at all. “A dead rabbit” produced from Osborne’s hat, joked the shadow chancellor after the Budget debate. The rabbit was gamboling across the front pages the following morning.

The impression that Labour’s message is shrinking was reinforced by a flurry of flat-pack jibes about the Prime Minister’s Eton education and millionaire-friendly tax regime. Cameron is touchy about references to his gilded schooling but it hurts more when the injury is inflicted by his own side. Toff-bashing ties the opposition up in complaints about a Conservative past when it needs to be advertising a Labour future.

Class resentment isn’t the only area where Tories seem more adept than Labour at damaging Cameron. Conservative infighting and rebellion and luminous government incompetence have done as much to advance Miliband’s prospects of victory as his policy interventions. That is not a service on which the opposition should rely.

Meanwhile, Downing Street does its best to turn debate to topics that make the Labour leader uncomfortable – budget cuts, immigration and welfare. It would be wrong to suggest that the opposition has nothing to say in those areas. Labour has accepted the coalition’s spending limits for the next parliament, pledged incentives for employers who hire British workers and supported a cap on the benefits bill. The missing element is not policy but emotional commitment.

Miliband has made speeches on tricky topics, each crafted to neutralise some Tory accusation, without inviting charges of treason from his own side. He then seems to think the matter is settled. This hit-and-run technique has often frustrated Labour MPs. The mood is now souring into fear of going into battle without defences against predictable Tory onslaughts. “There’s so little time to go and it doesn’t feel like we’re on a total war footing,” laments a backbencher. Others are harsher still. “We have nothing interesting to say about the things that really matter to people,” warns a shadow minister.

The Conservatives will try to hammer Labour for lacking the guts to bring welfare spending under control. The opposition is divided between those who think Miliband’s job is to rehabilitate national consent for generous social security and those who wish he understood why the old system made so many voters cross.

It is possible that opinion will shift. Sympathy for people on the sharp end of austerity may yet overtake suspicion that idlers have been unfairly cashing in. Public support for the thrust of coalition policy already excludes measures that seem vindictive. Privately some Tory MPs concede that the “bedroom tax” was ill-judged and that the rush to shunt people from long-term benefits into work has led to cruel treatment of some disabled claimants. There are signs that this message is even filtering up to the Treasury. In his Budget speech, Osborne eschewed references to fecklessness and fraud, sticking instead to the language of incentives. He even remarked: “Britain should always be proud of having a welfare system that helps those most in need.”

This reflects an easing of once hostile relations between Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith. The Treasury once viewed the Work and Pensions Secretary’s ambitions for a more “compassionate” Conservative welfare agenda with derision. Now IDS’s allies say the Chancellor has been persuaded that the Tories need to sound less punitive and more redemptive. Duncan Smith’s friends attribute the change to polling by Lynton Crosby, the party’s election strategist, showing that voters know the Conservatives like cutting benefits but suspect them of having the wrong motive. A tweak to the rhetoric can’t scrub the old stain of nastiness from the Tory image but it shows that Osborne has no intention of helping his enemies by playing up to caricature.

Labour will point at hardship and hunger as proof that the Chancellor’s economic recovery is leaving millions of people behind. To embarrass the government, the opposition will continue asking questions about food banks, zero-hours contracts, low wages, housing shortages, crippling rents and inequality to which Cameron has no answers. There are many awkward facts that the Tories want to wish away. All parties have their discomfort zones and things they would rather not talk about. Labour’s problem is that, when the Conservative attacks are constant, Miliband’s silences are too long and too loud. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

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