When Ed Miliband stands up in the House of Commons, he might be surprised to hear the loudest cheers coming from the wrong side of the chamber. He is becoming an unlikely Tory champion, the man who’ll do more than anyone else to ensure that David Cameron wins an outright majority at the next general election. Labour MPs grumble, but loyalty is hardwired into their collective DNA. As Gordon Brown knew, the word ‘unity’ has a near-hypnotic effect on his party. Labour has never ejected a bad leader. Unlike the Tories, they have not mastered the art of political regicide. So Labour seems to be stuck with a leader whom its MPs are unwilling to support or supplant.
Miliband was little-known when elected. His allies claimed he ‘spoke human’, unlike his brother David. Yet as each month passes, Mr Miliband looks more like a machine invented by Conservative head office, brilliantly programmed with bad jokes and worse judgment. British inflation has climbed to 5 per cent, the worst in Europe, but Miliband has failed to make his campaign on the cost of living stick. George Osborne is struggling to control state spending, which was higher in 2010-11 than in any year in British history. Yet Mr Miliband blames him for ‘fast, deep’ cuts, the opposite of the embarrassing truth.
On public sector reform, Labour should be mocking the Cameron government for its lack of originality. Michael Gove openly admits that his revolutionary school reform agenda is the continuation of what Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis started. Ditto high-speed rail: as William Astor observes on page 19, this is yet another Adonis policy.
Ed Miliband’s problems are partly explained by the fact that, in his head, he is still running against his brother. David Miliband would have rejuvenated the New Labour project, ensuring that the party was on the side of those who used public services, not those who provided the services. He would have rejected the idea of keeping bad schools open and letting children suffer just to keep adults happy. Indeed, the other day he called for Labour to try to create 100 new free schools. He would have dressed this all up in red, citing Nye Bevan as his inspiration: ‘The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.’
Ed Miliband’s latest tactic seems to be to announce the obvious and present it as a breakthrough. In the last week, he has boldly declared that the deficit will last beyond 2015 and that pre-election giveaways like the Winter Fuel Payment are no longer affordable. He says he has ‘discovered’ himself to be a man of ‘real steel and grit’. Few agree. He now ranks alongside Michael Foot and Iain Duncan Smith in having the worst ratings of any postwar opposition leader. Like them, he is a decent and honest man, but fatally miscast.
In his six years as Conservative leader, David Cameron has shown that he responds brilliantly to pressure — and appallingly to its absence. Squandering opinion poll leads was a bad habit he acquired in opposition, one he did not shake in time for the election. With Labour in such disarray, the Prime Minister does have the option of taking it even slower on reform and deficit reduction. Or he could be more radical, forward-thinking and bolder than ever. If 2012 is to be the year of the Labour wobble (with the Lib Dems in an ongoing existential crisis), then it could be a year of extraordinary opportunity for the Conservatives.
Who would have thought that American conservatives could vote for a French-speaking Mormon? On Tuesday, Mitt Romney took another big step towards becoming the Republican party’s nominee for the 2012 presidential election by winning the New Hampshire primary.
It hasn’t been easy. Ever since he rose to prominence in American politics, Romney has been reviled — by left and right — as an unprincipled opportunist, a ‘flip-flopper’ who’ll say anything to get elected, a multimillionaire businessman only interested in power for power’s sake. Even the supposedly enlightened Democratic party released an attack-ad showing Romney speaking French, as if that by itself made him untrustworthy.
So have Republican voters softened? Does Mitt’s victory herald a new tolerance on the American right; an acknowledgement that even ‘surrender monkeys’ are human? The real secret of Romney’s success is that beneath the weird veneer, he is in fact an embodiment of the American dream. He struggled at school, yet went on to make a fortune; he remained devout and sober, despite living among the licentious French. Republicans recognise in him those most American of virtues: optimism and persistence.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 14, 2012