In the past few difficult months, the Cameroons have taken comfort from their belief that Ed Miliband will never be prime minister. After the local elections earlier this month, when Labour took far more Tory seats than expected, the silver lining for the government was the thought that Ed Miliband would now stay on as Labour leader until 2015.
When asked to justify their conviction that Miliband will never make it to Downing Street, the Cameroons offer three reasons. First, they reckon that the public just can’t see him as PM material. Second, they expect that the next election will be fought on the economy, the area where Labour is weakest. Finally, they note that if there is one group of people less convinced by Miliband minor that they are, it is the old Blairites who know how to win elections.
The last few days, however, have suggested that the Tories’ confidence in Miliband might be misplaced. A recent poll had him overtaking David Cameron as the least unpopular party leader. That may not sound like much, but, as the pollster Peter Kellner notes, since the last Budget, Cameron’s net approval rating has fallen by two points, while Miliband’s has increased by 22 — a dramatic shift by any standard.
Admittedly, the question of whether or not a party leader is doing a good job is different to who might make the best prime minister. On that, Tory sources say, the party’s private research still gives Cameron at least a 20-point advantage. If that research is right, they can be confident that their polling will improve in any election campaign, as the public focuses on who it actually wants in Downing Street.
More alarming for the Tories is the news that 43 per cent of those who support Labour have a highly negative attitude towards Cameron; 91 per cent of them think he is doing a bad job. The Cameroons have always believed that they can persuade Labour voters to switch by putting their leader front and centre — they’re doing it again this week with various family policy announcements — but, given those sort of figures, it’s now unlikely to work. Labour strategists claim that Cameron is suffering from a ‘contamination problem’; voters’ views of him are converging with their views of the Tory party. A fair assessment of the situation would be that in a match-up between the two leaders, Cameron still has the advantage. But it is not as overwhelming as it once was.
Labour is also recovering ground on the economy. This week, for the first time since the coalition was formed, a poll put the party ahead on the issue — quite a turnaround. At the beginning of this year, the Tories had a 12-point lead. It’s clear that the public remain sceptical of Labour’s ability to look after the books. But the Tories’ almost automatic advantage on the economy seems to have disappeared.
In private, senior figures in both parties agree about why. The latest Budget wasn’t dominated by George Osborne’s most successful argument, on the need for tough decisions to deal with the deficit Labour left behind. Instead, it was about how to pay for an increase in the personal income tax allowance and a cut in the 50p rate. This gave Labour an opening to get back into the debate. Strikingly, the small changes to the VAT rules to help fund a more generous allowance have created far more controversy than there was over raising VAT in 2010 — the 20 per cent VAT rate, unlike the ‘pasty tax’, was understood as a measure to reduce the deficit.
The other important shift in recent days has been that Labour’s big beasts are beginning to rally to Miliband’s side. That Tony Blair is soon to endorse the Labour leader’s economic strategy is particularly significant, given his earlier doubts. I understand that the two men will make a joint appearance at a Labour fundraising event in the coming months.
These factors have combined to create a rather panicky mood in the Tory ranks. From the Cabinet downwards, there’s concern that the government isn’t doing enough to promote economic growth. This week, Michael Gove used the Cabinet meeting to call for more airport capacity to give Britain a better chance of increasing its share of trade with developing economies such as China. Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, again argued that the coalition should go further on deregulation, exempting small businesses from all regulation. An interesting division is emerging in the coalition between those who think that both parties need to make some concessions so that the government can have more of a clear growth agenda and those who believe that anything done now will be wiped out by the uncertainty surrounding Greece and the euro.
The other matter that should concern Cameron is that, as the Labour party moves on from the Blair-Brown feud and the brotherly divisions of 2010, his own parliamentary party is becoming increasingly obsessed by a divide between leadership loyalists and critics. What this split is actually about is not entirely clear even to those actively involved in it. But what is clear is that it is extremely personal. One veteran Tory MP says that he thinks it is more personally rancorous than the debate over Maastricht, which was at least a matter of principle.
There are now at least a dozen MPs who appear set on an attempt to unseat the leadership. They won’t succeed. But their efforts should worry Cameron because voters don’t like divided parties, and even a Dr Pangloss couldn’t imagine anything better than a small Tory majority at the next election.
Ed Miliband as prime minister is no longer an absurd proposition but a distinct political possibility. The Cameroons need to stop relying on him losing the next election and start concentrating on how to win it.