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A few easy wins won’t calm Miliband’s restless backbenches

Even when the Labour leader seems to be on a roll, no one seems to know where he is rolling to.

It is never a good sign in politics to be winning the gratitude of your enemies. Until very recently, Ed Miliband was the recipient of this dubious honour. Conservative MPs cherished the Labour leader's apparent inability to exploit their conspicuous weakness and toasted his good health. David Cameron and George Osborne had Miliband's defeatability at the heart of their re-election strategy.

Now, the favour is returned. Miliband has cause to be very grateful indeed to the Chancellor and the Prime Minister for their gifts of a bungled Budget and a party funding scandal. The Tories opened fire on their feet just in time to rescue the leader of the opposition from a crisis of authority in his own party.

Even with a regular opinion-poll lead, the Labour mood has been persistently glum. There is a widespread suspicion that the advantage is fragile - an expression of transient displeasure with the government more than solid affection for the opposition. That pessimism is born of doubt that Miliband could beat Cameron in the increasingly presidential format of a British general election.

One clique of Labour MPs is so dismayed by Miliband's ungainly apprenticeship at the helm that its members refer to him privately as "the intern". Even loyal shadow cabinet ministers are faint with their praise, tending to describe the leader's performance in relative terms as improving rather than good.

A nagging anxiety has been that Miliband's public profile will drift from obscure to ridiculous. "Much more of this Wallace and Gromit stuff and it's all over," a shadow minister said to me of his leader's propensity to be satirised as the accident-prone hero of animated plasticine misadventure.

Days of blunder

That was on the eve of the Budget. The morning after looked very different. It was Osborne who was caricatured on the front page of the Sun as Wallace, the victim of his own bodged inventions. The Chancellor knew that he was taking a gamble by cutting income tax for the rich and was prepared to defend the move on the grounds that they were being forced to contribute in other ways. But the ground shifted beneath his feet. Media attention alighted instead on the "granny tax" - a quiet raid on pensioners that was made perversely conspicuous on Budget day by virtue of being one of the few measures not leaked in advance.

This blunder shocked the Tories and delighted Labour, chiefly because it dented the Chancellor's reputation as a political mastermind. He had neither mastered the presentation of his Budget nor been mindful of the hazards it contained. "Osborne's strategic crown has slipped," was the verdict of one ministerial adviser.

Labour feasted on the Tory discomfort. In answering the Chancellor's statement, Miliband gave what was by far his most effective Commons performance to date, ridiculing the coalition's front bench for indulging millionaires in austere times. Opposition MPs cheered with relief as their leader slammed his ball into the open goal.

To enhance Labour's delight, just as the momentum was going out of the tax furore, the "cash for access" scandal erupted. The Tories were sent into a panic by allegations that high-rolling donors were buying intimate dinners with the Prime Minister and feeding their concerns directly to Downing Street. The party high command denies that policy was for sale but the existence of a scheme under which cash procures privileged encounters with top brass could hardly be disputed. It is advertised on

Rather than defend their arrangements, the Tories have chosen to attack the opposition's dependence on trade union money. That manoeuvre is more effective than Labour likes to admit. Officially, the comparison is denounced as a diversionary tactic (which it is) and a slur on democratic mass-membership organisations. Privately, there is recognition at the top of the party that Miliband is vulnerable to portrayal as the stooge of belligerent union barons.

For their part, the cash-strapped Liberal Democrats have fought bloody campaigns against candidates backed by union slush and Tory tycoons. They gladly evoke equivalence between the two.

In accordance with Westminster tradition, the funding issue will be buried in multiparty talks but the whiff of sleaze will still cling to the Tories. The public already suspects them of prioritising the needs of the rich and the Budget appears just to have proved the point. A run of bad headlines has drenched the party's brand in old contaminants.

Rolling and tumbling

Opinion polls show a slump in Conservative support. Some put Labour 10 points ahead. A double-digit lead bolsters Miliband's position, yet unease in the ranks has not dissipated. Gratification at the Tories' pain is diminished by it being self-inflicted. "If we can't make progress with a Budget like this, we may as well give up," is one shadow minister's analysis. "It has damaged them without necessarily enhancing us," says another frontbencher.

This flaccidity cannot be blamed exclusively on the leader. There is just as much grumbling about the shadow chancellor. Ed Balls is admired in the party as a formidable economist and media pugilist, but his strategy of advancing a position in microscopic increments and his intolerance of thinking aloud on fiscal policy are stifling. In the run-up to the Budget, Labour MPs watched jealously as Lib Dems and Conservatives batted competing tax initiatives around freely in public while they were permitted only the soulless mantra of the "five-point plan for jobs and growth".

Recent Tory blunders were immaculately timed for Miliband and Balls. Without them, the party would surely have sunk from despondency to despair. Yet the problems are deferred, rather than solved. Even now that the government is losing conspicuously, it is hard to find opposition MPs who think that their side is winning. Even when the leader seems to be on a roll, no one seems to know where he is rolling to and when Labour surges ahead in the polls, it just seems to prove that the Tories can be beaten without ever quite inspiring confidence that they will be.

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

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy