10 Nov 2014 at 09:03
In the early eighties as a young and foolish backbencher I was accused of plotting to oust Margaret Thatcher. It was, of course, nonsense. Francis Pym, a sacked and bitter Foreign Secretary, gathered a group of wets together to try and put a more compassionate and human face on Thatcherism. We called ourselves Centre Forward. Needless to say the Number 10 rubbish machine blew us out of the water. We were not so much strangled at birth as aborted.
A few days after termination I was invited to drinks with uber Thatcherite Nick Ridley. He gave me some very wise advice. ‘Always shoot to kill, never to wound. There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded politician’. He was right. And in 1990 that advice was successfully implemented.
It is pretty obvious that it much easier to butcher a Tory Leader than a Labour one. We are swift and brutal executioners. Labour can’t be because of the Byzantine methods of elections. To keep Miliband would be a disaster, but to get rid of him a catastrophe. Weeks of infighting between Brownites and Blairites would wreck any chance of taking power.
There are some fundamental differences between the defenestration of Thatcher and the amateurish attempts to oust Miliband. The main reason he will stay is because the electorate are blissfully unaware who the main contenders for the crown are. In 1989 Michael Heseltine and John Major were household names. By 1990 the polls indicated that if Thatcher was replaced by any of the contenders there would be a massive swing to the Conservatives. Remember that Thatcher was trailing Kinnock by about 25%. So backbenchers like me made a calculation. Would we have more of a chance of saving the government and our seats with or without her? The rest is history.
But today Labour does not have that luxury of a swing of any sort, let alone a game changing one should the Number 11 bus come careering towards Ed. In the next few days Labour MPs will have to make the same calculation as we did. I would be amazed if they didn’t just grit their teeth mumble that ‘they need to listen more’ and quietly tell those ambitious members of the Shadow Cabinet to shut up.
Ironically, Miliband’s real problem isn’t that he looks like the chairman of the school chemistry club and is not a very good communicator, its that the public don’t like his policies. The current line to take that this is all drummed up by the right wing press is laughable nonsense. The New Statesman is hardly a Thatcherite think tank.
No, Miliband’s problem is baggage. Ed Balls created Gordon Brown and cannot bring himself to accept that they trashed the economy. The Mansion tax is a disaster and will have be binned, or changed out of all recognition. And Andy Burnham knows that his claim that the Tories are out to destroy the NHS by handing it over to their fat cat friends is a dangerous lie. The public are not fools. Provided care is of a good quality and free at the point of delivery they don’t care if some of it comes from the private sector. Never forget that the horror of Mid Staffs was on his watch. He really is going to be slaughtered at the general election over this.
There is only one way Milband can hope to capture the imagination of the people, dump his baggage. But he can’t sack Ed Balls and order a U turn on economic policy. It is far too late and the Unions would go berserk. And there is the other problem, the likes of Len McLusky have more influence than ever before as private donors evaporate like snowballs in hell.
It is a popular myth that a lot of political capital rests on the Rochester and Strood by election. In reality it means very little. If UKIP wins will this be the end of Cameron? Good heavens no. It will be a couple of days of bad publicity a few grumbles from the usual suspects arguing for a some sort of pact. They will, of course, be ignored. Rochester is far more damaging to Labour. If they lose their deposit all hell will break lose, resurrecting all the old Miliband leadership hand wringing.
So their are two messages here. It would be helpful if those Tory rebels put aside their ill informed views of the European Arrest Warrant and actually listen to the powerful arguments in favour. As Labour is seriously on the run they would be insane to allow the headlines to change back to ‘Tories Split on Europe’. But they are just manic enough to do it.
And the message to Milband? You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks. Don’t even try. Run for office not for cover.