When Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader, cheers rang through the Conservative campaign headquarters. The Tories thought that his victory would ensure their survival in government after 2015. It is hardly unheard of for political parties to unnerve their opponents by arguing that they elected the “wrong leader” (or, even better, the wrong brother). But this was no bluff. They sincerely viewed Miliband as an electoral albatross.
The succeeding years were treated as vindication. Although Labour led in the polls, Miliband struggled to establish himself as an alternative prime minister and consistently trailed David Cameron by a double-digit margin as the country’s preferred PM. By December 2014, when the Labour leader’s approval ratings had sunk to the subterranean territory previously reserved for Nick Clegg, one Conservative aide could confidently tell me that the public’s negative view of Miliband had “calcified” to the point at which nothing could change it. The expectation was that Labour supporters who favoured Cameron would migrate to the Tories from January onwards, with Miliband wilting like a salted snail in the election campaign.
But the opening weeks have not conformed to this script. A month from polling day, the Conservatives remain tied with Labour and Miliband’s ratings have improved markedly in response to his performance in the TV debates. Like an apocalyptic tribe that mistakenly forecasts the end of the world, the Tories have had to continually revise the point at which they will achieve “crossover”. And rather than predictions that Miliband would collapse, it is Chris Patten’s words that have proved prophetic. At the start of the year, the former Conservative chairman warned his party not to underestimate Miliband, adding, “The sophisticated spin on Ed Miliband for the Conservatives should be: ‘Ooh, he is much better than what people say he is.’ What the Conservatives should be doing is trying to raise the bar.” The advice was ignored.
Having failed to rout Labour, the Tories show signs of wishing to outsource or subcontract the job. When he entered the “spin room” following the seven-way TV debate on 2 April, George Osborne immediately remarked how well he thought Nicola Sturgeon had performed. With Labour in danger of losing almost all of its 40 Scottish seats to the SNP (the Conservatives hold just one seat there), it is in the Tories’ interests to talk up the Nationalist threat. The same logic drove Cameron’s demand that the Greens be included in the debates. By splitting the left, the Tories hope to retain power even with a share of the vote smaller than or equivalent to the 36 per cent they achieved in 2010.
The “challengers’ debate” of 16 April, in which Miliband will face Nigel Farage, Sturgeon, the Greens’ Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, is being anticipated with glee by the Tories and the Lib Dems. The Labour leader will be assailed from the left by Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood, an anti-austerity tag team (they met in advance before the last debate), and from the right by Farage over immigration and the EU. One Conservative MP predicts an evening of “televisual torture” for Miliband. A shadow cabinet member admits to “concern”, noting how the Labour leader will be presented as a member of the Westminster elite. “It is going to be a very, very difficult format. It’s not the format we would have chosen,” one Miliband aide tells me. “It is a format, again, entirely of Downing Street’s making.”
But members of the Labour leader’s team argue that he had no alternative. Had Miliband declined to attend, they say, it would have even been easier for the small parties to bracket him with Cameron and Nick Clegg as part of the establishment. After the uplift in his ratings, they also argue with confidence, “The more opportunities people get to see Ed Miliband unmediated, the better.”
The debate, however, will be a microcosm of the great challenge he has faced in recent years: that of establishing himself as the authentic voice of opposition to the Conservatives. Since 2013, he has struggled as others – Farage, Alex Salmond, Bennett, Sturgeon – have claimed the mantle of the insurgent. More than in any other recent parliament, the position of de facto opposition leader is one that has been constantly contested.
Miliband’s allies acknowledge that as a PPE graduate and former special adviser, he will never be seen as an outsider, making it even more imperative to embrace radical and distinctive stances on the economy. It is this, as well as social-democratic conviction, that inspires pledges such as that to abolish the 216-year-old non-domicile rule, which allows wealthy UK residents to avoid paying tax on their overseas earnings.
But the cautious compromises that have been the hallmark of his leadership will be tested as never before in the debate. He will somehow need to speak to both Ukip-inclined social conservatives and Green-inclined metropolitan liberals. Charged with subscribing to “Tory austerity”, he will need to decide whether to reveal just how much latitude Labour’s fiscally looser plans give it (as Jim Murphy noted during the Scottish leaders’ debate, it could end spending cuts after 2015-16 and still meet its deficit targets) or whether to remain mute for fear of entrenching his party’s profligate reputation. Miliband’s ambition is to be simultaneously “radical” and “credible”. The danger is that he appears deficient in both.
It is a mark of the Conservatives’ weakness that they are left to hope that Miliband fluffs his carefully calibrated lines, just as it was when Cameron dispensed with constitutional propriety to name his opponent outside No 10 on the day that parliament was dissolved. The Tories may yet retain power but they have already lost honour.