Alex Massie

Is Ed Miliband a) hopeless, b) on course to become Prime Minister or c) both?

Is Ed Miliband a) hopeless, b) on course to become Prime Minister or c) both?
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I have never quite understood Ed Miliband's appeal. He always reminds me of Cuthbert Cringeworthy from The Bash Street Kids. I find it hard to imagine him becoming Prime Minister. Something just feels wrong about that. I'm not alone in wondering about this. Brian Wilson, the former energy minister, wrote yesterday that Miliband still has a kind of credibility problem. People just don't think he's quite ready for the top job. They may not be able to say exactly why they're unimpressed by Miliband; they just know they are.

Not so fast my friend, responds John McTernan today. Ignore all the chattering and blethering about Labour's slide in the polls and focus on the core picture: Miliband is still likely to be leader of the largest party after the next election. Everything is fine. Stop fretting. You can see why every Labour MP has tweeted McTernan's job application article.

It is, of course, possible that McTernan and Wilson are both right. Miliband could be hopeless and still win. He begins, after all, with several advantages. First, the constituency boundaries favour Labour. Secondly, there is no sign of a Tory revival in the north and Scotland. Thirdly, the Iraq War votes Labour lost to the Lib Dems will either return to Labour or stay at home in 2015. These are all high-value cards for Labour.

And he may also be helped by the Conservatives who seem prepared to abandon the very things that helped them back to power in the first place. As McTernan puts it: Cameron’s narrow margin as the largest party at Westminster was gained by a relentless centrism. The difference between being a centrist and a right-wing party is the margin between victory and defeat.

Quite. As McTernan - who is, I should say, someone I've known since he spent a spell as a columnist for Scotland on Sunday in the early days of this century - concludes:

Cameron has lost his way because he has forgotten the lesson he and George Osborne learnt painfully in opposition. When he proclaimed that he would let sunshine have the day, Cameron was appealing to a deep-seated emotion among British voters. They wanted, once more, to feel that their – and their nation’s – best days were ahead of them. This is not simply a matter of numbers – pledging to increase jobs, or raise real wages or even grow the economy. It’s more basic than that. Voters want to believe that Britain can be great again. Emotional patriotism and economic optimism have been thrown away by the current government. They are there for the taking. Ed Miliband has the numbers, and the field is clear.

This might be a trifle optimistic but, broadly speaking, it is true. At least for now. There is still time for an economic recovery that will allow Cameron and Osborne to argue that, taking power at a time when Britain was at a low ebb, they have steered the ship of state to better waters where the sun is shining and there's a fair wind set for sail.

But if the Tories are to defeat Miliband they also need to choose how to define him. Is he weak? He may look it but he knifed his brother and picked fights with Rupert Murdoch and the Trade Unions. Is he hopeless, then? Perhaps. But prove it!

Most of all, however, where are the Tories going to win the seats that will carry them to a majority? What parts of the country are going to be more disposed to look favourably upon Cameron and Osborne than was the case in 2010? The Tories haven't got more than 40% of the vote since 1992. How are they even going to make it to, say, 38% this time? (And how does he keep Labour below, say, 32%?)

I rather agree with Brian Wilson that Ed Miliband hasn't yet made a convincing case for why he should become Prime Minister. But while I'd very much like to think John McTernan is wrong I'm not at all sure he is. Miliband might not need to be very good to win.