Conservative ministers at the party's conference in Manchester in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories are obsessed with Miliband’s “weakness”. They’d do better to reflect on their own

Rather than rejoicing at the Labour leader's unpopularity, the Tories should ask themselves why they continue to trail in the polls.

When David Cameron was forced to disown Rebekah Brooks at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, he despatched an emissary to express his regret. “Sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as you have been to me, but Ed Miliband had me on the run,” was the message relayed to the former News International chief executive. The Labour leader had forced Cameron to play catch-up by breaking one of the unwritten rules of British politics and declaring war on Rupert Murdoch.

But if the Prime Minister felt threatened by Miliband then, he doesn’t now. A “profound apology” was what Cameron promised if Andy Coulson, whom he appointed first as director of communications of the Conservative Party and then to the same role at No 10, was found guilty of phone-hacking. But there was nothing profound about the terse, matter-of-fact message that the Prime Minister recorded shortly after the legal verdict was announced. The banality of his response reflected the Tories’ belief that any damage from the affair had already been done. “We’ve cauterised the wound,” a Conservative MP told me.

It was also evidence of Miliband and Cameron’s changed fortunes. When the former had the Prime Minister “on the run”, his net approval rating stood at -21 to Cameron’s -25. It now stands at -43 to Cameron’s -13. More than the economic recovery, the incumbency factor and Labour’s spendthrift reputation, it is Miliband’s parlous personal ratings that give the Tories hope that they will emerge victorious in May 2015.

That an increasing number in Labour take the same view has reinforced their confidence. Jon Cruddas’s call in an interview with me for an end to political “top trumps”, and his declaration that “it’s not about Andy [Burnham], or Ed [Balls], or Yvette [Cooper]”, offer a glimpse into the conversations that some of the party’s MPs are having in private about the leadership. Although there is no outright disloyalty to Miliband, the subject of defeat and what it would mean for Labour arises with ever-greater frequency.

Yet Miliband heads a party that has led in the polls almost continuously for three years. When the Tories moved ahead after George Osborne’s deft Budget in March, many predicted that Labour’s lead had ended permanently. However, the party’s slight but stubborn advantage has returned.

Rather than rejoicing at Miliband’s subterranean personal ratings, the Tories should ask themselves why. The optimistic reading is that the Conservatives’ vote share is a “lagging indicator” that will shift as the fruits of the economic recovery are shared more widely and as voters properly consider whom they want to run the country. It is one echoed by some in Labour. Veterans of the Kinnock era recall that the party led the Tories for years in opposition but that John Major’s lead as “the best prime minister” proved decisive. Their Scottish colleagues note that the same was true in the case of Iain Gray and Alex Salmond in the 2011 Holyrood election. No party leader has ever won while trailing on both leadership and economic competence and few Tories believe that Miliband will be the first.

The pessimistic reading is that the Conservatives’ depressed ratings reflect the long-term structural weakness of the Tory brand. This is the party that won just 36 per cent of the vote against Gordon Brown’s government in 2010, that 57 per cent of the public “dislike” (compared to 43 per cent for Labour and 47 per cent for the Liberal Democrats) and that just 31 per cent think is “on the side of people like me”.

It was the belief that such uncomfortable truths had to be confronted, rather than ignored, that underpinned Cameron’s modernisation project. The Tories’ centrist shift enabled them to win their biggest swing since 1931 and to avoid a fourth successive general election defeat. But just at the moment when Cameron should have consolidated his advantage, he retreated. In the months following the 2010 election, the view hardened that the Tories had failed to win a majority because they were insufficiently “tough” on immigration, welfare and Europe, not because too few trusted them to manage public services and to govern in the interests of all voters. After this, the party’s rightwards trajectory in office became inevitable.

In his leaked attack on Cameron’s EU strategy, the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski (an old Bullingdon Club contemporary of Boris Johnson at Oxford) lamented that he had “ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him”. The same is true in almost every other area. The man who once declared that his priorities could be defined by the three letters “N-H-S” now avoids mentioning the subject in deference to the Conservatives’ election strategist Lynton Crosby. After trying and failing to erode Labour’s lead on the issue by pinning the blame for the Mid Staffs scandal on them, Crosby has concluded that even to acknowledge the existence of the health service only gives succour to the opposition.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Conservative Party has only two modes: panic and complacency. Having exhibited plenty signs of the former (as displayed by the intermittent briefing wars over Cameron’s putative successor), the Tories are now lapsing into the latter. The monomaniacal focus on Labour’s weaknesses, rather than their own, is evidence of a party that is in danger of forgetting why it did not win a majority in 2010. “We have made a series of mistakes collectively because we have always underestimated him [Miliband],” said Eric Pickles recently, in a rare moment of Conservative self-criticism. But even more than that, the Tories need to avoid overestimating themselves. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.