What if Ed Miliband wins? His victory is still seen, especially by those on the right, as a near-impossibility — an event so improbable as to defy the laws of political gravity. But then again, we’re three weeks away from the general election and still the Conservatives still haven’t managed to establish a convincing lead. He might yet defy the bookies. And what then?
Imagine it’s the morning of Friday 8 May. Prime Minister Miliband has just crossed the threshold of Downing Street, the famous door swinging shut behind him. What happens next?
One thing happens immediately. In that instant, he divests himself of his biggest negative. The perception that Ed Miliband simply does not look like a prime minister dies. The bacon sandwiches, the otherworldliness, the lonely sojourns on Hampstead Heath — they no longer matter. Within an hour, the analysts who spent the past year mocking him will start to talk about his resilience under pressure, his single-mindedness, the bold new direction in which Britain will go. This is how punditry works; all victories (and defeats) are retrospectively declared inevitable. He has the part, so by definition he looks the part.
So is he ready to play it? The Conservative party has built an entire election strategy on the assumption that the British people will answer that question with a resounding no. But Miliband would enter Downing Street with more experience then any newly elected prime minister of the past 35 years. Tony Blair had no hands-on knowledge of life inside government at any level. David Cameron had worked as an adviser but held no ministerial post. Ed Miliband has done both, as Environment Secretary and as a senior adviser at the Treasury. He understands how Whitehall works.
Speak to anyone who is in regular contact with Labour’s leader, and they all agree he is only too ready to embrace the top job. ‘He’s absolutely convinced he’s been pre-ordained for some big historical mission,’ one senior shadow cabinet member told me. ‘Don’t ask me what the hell it is. But he genuinely believes that.’ Another — rather less charitably — said, ‘Just because you think a lot it doesn’t necessarily make you a great thinker. Ed’s problem is that he regards himself as a great thinker. And he isn’t.’
Great thinker or not, allies confirm Prime Minister Miliband would call time on the ‘chillaxing’ culture that has come to define David Cameron’s management of Downing Street. One friend says, ‘He gets up early, and he’s into the media planning. Then it’s into meetings, and they’re scheduled back to back. The office will build in a bit of downtime, but then he won’t take it.’ Admirable as this is, it can create a problem. ‘You need space to sit back and breathe. Over the past five years Ed hasn’t had that. And if he gets into Downing Street I only see things getting worse.’
And here resides the paradox. As one aide explains, ‘The thing you have to understand about Ed Miliband is that his strengths are also his weaknesses.’ Speak to anyone who has worked at any level in Labour’s operation and they will praise their leader’s intellectual inquisitiveness, his empathy and his inclusiveness. But there is one other thing they all agree on: his congenital indecisiveness.
‘If Ed Miliband becomes Prime Minister then what I want to know is how anyone will get a decision out of him,’ says one Labour MP. ‘Look at the time it’s taken to pull the manifesto together. Now place him on the slow rolling treadmill of government. Where’s a Queen’s Speech coming from?’ A shadow cabinet colleague agreed, and struggled to rationalise Miliband’s inability to assert authority. ‘I can’t fathom it. It’s like there’s a stubbornness there, a sort of arrogance. He almost takes a pride in refusing to make his mind up.’ Where does that stubbornness come from, I ask? ‘It’s how you’re brought up. There’s some weird stuff going on there.’
Another contradiction can be found in his loyalty to his much-maligned inner circle. One former aide points to the way he sticks by ‘some really useless people. It’s a massive blind spot with him. Not just his own staff, but MPs who have been with him since the beginning. On one level it’s commendable. But it would come back to bite him in government.’
Everyone I spoke to saw the ‘Red Ed’ caricature as a Tory and media construct. ‘He worked in Gordon Brown’s Treasury, explaining to Labour MPs why they had to stick to Ken Clarke’s spending limits,’ said one ally, ‘and he didn’t lose any sleep over it.’ Although he now claims to have opposed the Iraq war, no one can remember him doing so at the time. A more agnostic MP told me, ‘There’s a reason why Ed and Len McCluskey don’t get on, and it isn’t because they’re ideological soulmates.’
Several of Milliband’s favourite ideas are about not what he’d do with government, but what he’d do to companies. One of the latest, last weekend, was a plan to divert money from Help-to-Buy Isa savings accounts into the home-building sector — a plan to create 125,000 more houses. This is a theme of Miliband’s government: he recognises that he won’t have much money to throw around, so would like to meet his social objectives by issuing more instructions to business. He calls this ‘pre-distribution’ — using regulation, rather than the tax system, to move money about. Capping energy prices, for example, or breaking up banks.
Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, and Chuka Umunna, the shadow business minister, have spent the past few months attempting to reassure Britain’s business chiefs that if elected they will water down their leader’s niche brand of anti-capitalism. Balls has let it be known that he does not endorse the simplistic ‘producers vs predators’ dividing line Miliband drew in his 2011 conference speech, while Umunna has been lobbying internally for Labour to build a stronger partnership with the business community.
Given the suspicion in which Balls and Umunna are held by the Miliband inner circle, it is by no means certain that they would retain their briefs in Miliband’s first cabinet. This in turn would create one of the great uncertainties of a Miliband premiership: neither he nor anyone around him has any experience in business. For all their bright ideas about what companies could do for them, they haven’t a clue whether their various means of exerting pressure will work — or what unintended consequences may follow. One head of a FTSE100 company recently granted a rare audience with the putative First Lord of the Treasury sat dumbstruck as Miliband asked him, ‘Why exactly do you need to pay your shareholders dividends?’
Miliband’s supporters claim, with some justification, that if you assess his leadership to date, his strongest moments have been when the pressure is on. ‘Every time he’s been backed into a corner, he’s come out fighting,’ says a friend. ‘With Rupert Murdoch, the battle with Unite over Falkirk, confronting the energy companies.’ A shadow cabinet supporter agrees. ‘This is the guy who took out his own brother. He’s tough enough.’
His critics, with equal justification, point to the fact that Miliband’s lack of strategic thinking and numerous tactical blunders are what leave him constantly backed into corners in the first place. ‘Yes, I suppose he would be good at dealing with the 3 a.m. call,’ says one former shadow minister, ‘so long as he remembers to plug in the phone, can find the phone and doesn’t drop the phone when he tries to pick it up.’
Which brings us back to that Prime Minister Miliband paradox. He thinks, but he also over-thinks. He listens, but he cannot decide. He fights hard, but finds himself fighting on too many fronts simultaneously.
But one thing cannot be denied: Labour has, as a party, held together. Traditionally, it disembowels itself after losing office. Under Miliband, this has not happened. According to one shadow cabinet member, this may be Miliband’s greatest accomplishment. ‘The great crisis facing both of the main parties is how we hold it all together,’ he says. ‘Everything’s cracking: Ukip, the SNP. Now, whatever you think of Ed Miliband, he’s found a way of gluing things over the past five years. He’s given Labour a chance of breaking the cycle of defeat followed by defeat. So maybe if he won he could do that for the country.’
Maybe he could. Maybe he couldn’t. The problem is, there’s only one way to know for sure.
Hear Dan Hodges on ‘View from 22’. Dan Hodges is a former Labour party and trade union official, and writes for the Telegraph.