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Ed Miliband, and the bidding war for Nick Clegg’s ear

Last Updated: Friday, October 1st, 2010

The first reaction of the Conservatives and their supporters to Ed Miliband’s election was that he’d be easy to beat.  After all, Miliband is from the left of his Party, wasn’t supported either by its members or its MPs, and thus trailed in two out of Labour’s three electoral colleges.  He owed his wafer-thin victory to the Trade Unions.  For the first 24 hours after his election, the label “Red Ed” looked as though it would stick.

Their second reaction was less certain.  At the last election, Labour won some 258 seats with a mere 29 per cent of the vote.  If Gordon Brown’s party had gained ten or so more seats, he’d probably be in Downing Street still, presiding over a “Rainbow Coalition”.  Miliband – a fresh face to most voters – thus sets out in a far stronger position than the last Labour leader to be elected from the left, Neil Kinnock (one of his supporters).

Miliband’s provided more material for this reappraisal since last weekend.  His first Labour Conference speech was a workmanlike attempt to please not the Party’s left, but mainstream voters.  He later broke with his Brownite past by ditching Nick Brown, the last Prime Minister’s Chief Whip.  And the departure from Labour’s front bench of his brother and rival, David Miliband – the man who nearly beat him – is a stroke of good fortune.

The Conservatives are bound to attack Miliband as a man without a legitimate mandate; a creature of the unions and the left; a serial flip-flopper on Iraq, student finance, ID cards, and a third Heathrow runway, and as a weak leader who funks tough decisions on the deficit.  But more important than the tactics of any of the main Parties are the tactical manoeuvres of all three.

Cameron and Miliband recognise the long-term move that’s taken place in British politics away from the monopoly that their respective parties once enjoyed.  Both, therefore, will be thinking long-term about coalitions or arrangements with the Liberal Democrats.  Miliband’s speech emphasised the inspiration (in lines borrowed from Tony Blair) that he draws from such Liberals as Beveridge and Lloyd George.

To date, Labour’s main means of dealing with the Liberal Democrats has been to shout at them.  This has only had the effect of drawing their leadership and the Conservatives’ closer together.  Miliband seems to be preparing to charm them instead – to try to divide them from the Conservatives by stressing that he shares the Liberal Democrats instincts on the alternative vote (which he supports), Trident, student finance, tax, Lords Reform and civil liberties).

Cameron, in response, will be tempted to offer the Liberal Democrats concessions on these matters and others.  It would be surprising if Nick Clegg – with whom Miliband apparently held a fifteen minute or so phone conversation after the latter’s election – didn’t pressure the Prime Minister from time to time by indicating that his MPs and Party members are receptive to Miliband’s message.

One can’t quite imagine Clegg saying: “If you won’t bear us in mind, I know someone else who will.”  But that, no doubt, will be the message.  It would be surprising if Cameron didn’t respond accordingly, while keeping a nervous eye on his Party’s right.  And if Miliband didn’t do the same, looking over his shoulder at his Party’s left.  Nick Clegg’s Party is being punished in the opinion polls.  But Miliband’s election has sparked a war for its ear.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE LAST WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Ed Miliband can’t become Prime Minister if he listens to the Labour movement: “Is the Labour movement in danger of repeating the same kind of mistakes as the pre-Cameron Tories? My polling, supplemented by twelve focus groups, suggests that the danger is very real. The Labour movement…does not appreciate the reasons why swing voters rejected Gordon Brown’s government. Labour loyalists still blame voters for failing to appreciate the achievements of Brown and Blair. They blame Labour’s communications operation rather than its unpopular policies. And, all too predictably, they blame The Sun, Daily Mail and other “right-wing media” for unfair coverage.” Read more: http://is.gd/fCsjH

Cameron has reasons to be cheerful: “The third important development this week were signs that the Tory machine is coming back to life. Sayeeda Warsi hit the right notes yesterday evening in pointing to Ed Miliband’s union links.  Matt Hancock MP has emerged as George Osborne’s frontman in attacking Ed Miliband’s deficit denial.  And Michael Fallon MP became the Conservative Party’s media attack dog. Fallon’s appointment is another sign that the Coalition is ready for combat and rebuilding relations with the neglected Right of the party. All in all a very good week for the Tory leader.  Read more: http://is.gd/fCsRO

George Osborne needs a bolder plan to stop businesses quitting Britain: “George Osborne’s lack of belief in the supply-side benefits of tax cuts – and his appointment of Robert Chote to head the Office of Budget Responsibility – gives him little room to argue that lower taxes can often pay for themselves in the medium-term. What he does need to do, at the very least, is more rebalancing of the tax system. That means higher taxes on unproductive activities (high value properties and ‘sin’) to fund lower taxes on productive activities (jobs and investment). That – alongside reform of schools and welfare – is what businesses need to hear.” Read more: http://is.gd/fCt5y

Ed Miliband’s £1,373 tax bombshell: “Dogs bark, ducks quack and Conservative politicians accuse Labour politicians of planning to increase taxes. Tonight’s new Tory attack on Ed Miliband might be predictable but that doesn’t make it any less sensible. Last week Matt Hancock MP – former chief of staff to George Osborne – identified a £67 billion black hole in Ed Miliband’s economic plans. He reached the figure by adding up the Coalition’s deficit-reducing measures that Ed Miliband had opposed and the new spending promises he had made in his courting of Labour’s electoral college. Tonight he has returned to the attack, accusing the new Labour leader of needing £35bn of tax rises to meet his plans.” Read more: http://is.gd/fCtmK

The Liam Fox letter row – David Cameron can either shelter Departmental budgets or reduce the deficit. He can’t do both: There’s bound to be further today about speculation about ultimatums and resignations.  The Defence Secretary’s letter noted that his views are shared by “Ministerial colleagues”.  But don’t expect any shocks until after next week.  Dr Fox will want to make his pitch to Party Conference. Governing Britain means making tough choices.  David Cameron can either shelter departmental spending or cut the deficit.  He can’t do both. The Government’s heading for dangerous waters.  Conservative backbenchers are sure to give the Defence Secretary’s concerns a very sympathetic hearing when Parliament returns.  And next week’s Conservative Conference could be blown off course by spending rows. Read more: http://is.gd/fCtJD

The squeezed middle, Cameron’s couples – and a tax cut solution for the Government: “Labour’s John Healey argued “the squeezed middle” – this “just coping” class, under “constant pressure”, is “electorally critical” – crucial swing voters, and the real “Middle Britain”.  James Forsyth, the Spectator’s Political Correspondent, today looks at an overlapping group of voters – those paid between £25,000-£40,000 a year…Forsyth reports that last May the Conservatives gained only a three per cent swing among “lower middle-class voters — the so-called C1s. Today, this group has a household income of around £33,000.”  He runs through policies that Conservative strategists believe will “release the hidden Tory inside”: free schools, directly elected police chiefs, welfare reform (a “wedge issue”) and tax cuts.” Read more: http://is.gd/fCu6X

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