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.