Week in Review: The case of Ed Miliband and the magic policy
No-one likes talking about it, but Ed Miliband will probably become prime minister in 2015. It's the truth that dare not speak its name. Journalists and politicians pretend it isn't happening, but all the signs point one way.
He's a whopping 12-points ahead in the polls. Even his ratings for economic competency are improving; or rather, they are looking less bad than George Osborne's ratings for economy competency. He regularly bests David Cameron in PMQs. He can suck up all the votes of alienated Liberal Democrats. He leads a party of iron discipline, unlike the menagerie on the government benches.
The Tories, on the other hand, lost the 20-seat boost the boundary review would have given them. Their backbenchers have all the self-preservation instincts of a dodo and the party's central reason for being in government – to cut the deficit – has succeeded only in flat-lining the British economy
But no-one really talks about Miliband becoming prime minister. It's because he's got no shoulders and a funny face. They can't imagine him striding the international stage, pumping the hands of world leaders and solemnly announcing a counter-productive military intervention.
But strip aside all the physical impracticalities and the crude data is there for all to see. Miliband is on course to be prime minister. He started the week with the best poll results for ten years. Then he picked satirist and writer John O'Farrell to run for Eastleigh.
It's a risky move – a strong performance from a charismatic candidate could split the Lib Dem vote and let the Tories in, which is an undesirable outcome for Miliband. But if he doesn't run in seats like this – southern, relatively wealthy, full of paranoid first-or-second-generation homeowners – he's got no claim to that 'one nation' moniker he's so obsessed with. He can't win the seat, but he can double or triple Labour's 2010 performance and give himself some momentum. Whether it works or not, O'Farrell was a pleasingly risky choice – not a defensive one.
Speaking of 'one nation', he mentioned it 18 times in a speech on Thursday. The entire shadow Cabinet behave as if they have a tedious version of Tourettes', muttering the phrase inadvertently ahead of random words. Presumably their briefing sessions are Guantanamo-style torture sessions, where they're tied down, blindfolded and have 'one nation' screamed at them for two hours, emerging afterwards a shadow of their former selves, unable to care for their children, sitting in empty rooms and whispering it to themselves, like Wilson Smith at the end of 1984.
The speech did well. When it was done, commentators on left and right were praising Miliband for stealing mansion tax from the Lib Dems and the 10p tax rate from Tory backbenchers. Both will be opposed by the other party. Osborne cannot U-turn on his opposition to a mansion tax, and the Lib Dems don't want a 10p tax rate, because it distracts from their achievement in taking lower-earners out of the tax system altogether. Miliband's clothes-swapping was like the bit at the end of True Romance when all the hero's enemies shoot each other. Not only that, but it was solid, redistributive Old (sorry, 'one nation') Labour policy-making. Best of all, it distanced him from Gordon Brown.
Unfortunately, things looked less bright the next day. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which by law must be described as 'respected' whenever it is mentioned in print, said the policies were an ineffective means of accomplishing their stated intentions. Most newspaper editorials thought it was a con trick.
There was no hint of the policy ahead of the speech, so Labour either scribbled it on the back of an envelope overnight or under-spun to the media to keep them off the scent. It was one or the other and the media, predictably, went with the former.
It's all in a day's work for Miliband. The runes all point his way and the press points the other. But what were his opponents doing? Tearing strips off each other.
Vince Cable and senior Tories were calling for some civility in the bloodbath that is the Eastleigh by-election, but the Conservatives were having none of it. They love telling voters the Lib Dems can't be trusted, mostly because they plainly can't. Cable put that pensive, reasonable face of his back on and told everyone to calm down, but he got down and dirty with the best of them when it came to applying pressure on Osborne ahead of next month's Budget. A slip by Cameron at PMQs suggests Osborne put that 10p tax rate in the Budget, in which case he'll have been doing some frantic rubbing out with his pencil on Thursday night, after Miliband stole it.
They are all over the place and Miliband is driving forward to his desired destination. Not that you'd know it.