Comment: Whisper it – Ed Miliband could be prime minister

No matter how many gains Labour secures, Ed Miliband does not look like a prime minister in waiting. He looks like a Lego man, unable to compete with David Cameron's easy charm.

Labour's gains tonight are significant but, at the time of writing, they are not of a scale which suggests an impending general election victory. Even if they did, one should always be wary of translating local council fights into a general election.

But Ed Miliband could be prime minister by 2015 because of a unique combination of factors: An incompetent government, a resurgent United Kingdom Independence party (Ukip), a divided Tory party, a hung parliament result, an unpopular austerity package and continued economic decline.

Much has been written about Miliband's weaknesses, but consider for a moment the accomplishments of the Conservatives. They have not won a general election since 1992. They failed to do so even against a deeply unpopular Labour party which had been in power for 13 years. Cameron has been leader for seven years and he has few real successes to show for it. He couldn't win an election before implementing an austerity package which plunged the UK back into recession. It seems unlikely he will succeed in its aftermath.

The government has proved adept at alienating its core supporters through cack-handed initiatives such as the granny tax. It fails to communicate properly on even the most basic and justifiable measures, such as a VAT on pasties. It has jettisoned the trust it worked so hard to earn on issues such as the NHS. Individual ministers like Francis Maude are inept enough to turn positive news stories for the government, such as the fuel strike, into self-harming crises. Its chief strategist, George Osborne, is increasingly seen as the emperor without his clothes, following a Budget which competed only with Gordon Brown's 10p tax rate package for political self-destruction. Now the voters are punishing it in local councils across England.

The Tories' right-wing economic agenda has polarised the electorate and lost it any chance for support among the centrist and public sector voters who Cameron tried so assiduously to court when he first became leader. At the same time, he has fumbled the ball with right wingers on issues such as gay marriage, Lords reform and the EU. That, along with the terminal decline of the Lib Dems allows Ukip an opportunity to become the third party in British politics.

Nothing could be more dangerous for the Conservatives. The fringe party's increased presence on panel shows and political programmes will give it more support and threaten to split the Tory vote. At precisely the same time, the left vote will be more united than at any point in recent memory, as the split in the vote which existed since the formation of the SDP moves uniformly to Miliband's party.

The pressure from the Tories right flank will encourage right wing Conservative backbenchers to make more noise, possibly prompting a rightward shift from Cameron on social issues. He's already testing the water with a U-turn the on the internet porn 'opt-in' campaign being touted so vigorously by the Daily Mail. This will make the Conservatives look even more divided and encourage him to speak out on issues which will further alienate centrist voters.

Ed Miliband continues to have a limited impact on voters. In so far as he does, it is a negative one. But his achievements are underrated. Politics does not reward the things you prevent, but any impartial observer would credit him with having prevented a civil war in Labour at precisely the moment when it seemed inevitable.

The party was already split down the middle when it left office. The manner of his election – a Brownite relying on union block votes – should have triggered internecine battles. With a calm manner and a patient behind-the-scenes approach he has put the party in a position where it can present a unified force able to pick up local councils. That in itself is remarkable.

It's quite likely that by the time the dust settles on Friday evening, Labour will have failed to win the London mayoralty or control Glasgow. That will allow Cameron to argue Miliband is underperforming. But London is about Boris and Ken – an anomalous situation which will not affect Labour's performance in the capital at the general election. Glasgow is also specific to the unique chaos created by Alex Salmond's charisma and tactical genius.

Ed Miliband continues to labour under the problems which are so thoroughly repeated by political commentators of all stripes. But all the cards are stacked in his favour. And the local elections show he is perfectly capable of taking advantage of them.

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