After his criticism of the Iraq war, the Labour leader can approach challenge of a new intervention from first principles
James Callaghan, as a defeated Labour prime minister, was asked how he thought his successor, Margaret Thatcher, was handling the Falklands war. He reflected: “If only I had had a war.” It’s macabre political jingoism, very nearly upturned by the lessons of Iraq, but usually wars do well for prime ministers.
This week a war has helped a leader of the opposition. In the Commons on Monday, Ed Miliband, in response to David Cameron, talked of the imperative of intervening in Libya, drawing on the image of his parents fleeing terror in Europe, but also citing the west’s failure to support the republican side during the Spanish civil war.
Some of his friends urged against mentioning Franco, saying it was mawkish. But, he told waverers in the shadow cabinet, Labour was an international party. This conflict had the imprimatur of the UN, so Labour would be critical friends to the government.
The government thinks that to the public Miliband is “son of Gordon Brown”. Libya, by contrast, is a “clean-skin” of an issue. After his criticism of the Iraq war during the Labour leadership election, Miliband can approach the challenge of a new intervention from first principles.
One could pseudo-sagaciously say Libya “allowed Miliband to appear prime ministerial”. But, in always ascribing ulterior motives to politicians, we forget that the job must present stimulating questions about the world that it’s satisfying to try to navigate.
There is also a trend. A run that started a fortnight ago with a pretty good speech at the Scottish conference was noticed by some in Westminster when he outdid Cameron in prime minister’s questions on the subject of the NHS, was sustained in his response to Libya, and wasn’t upturned with his response to the budget on Wednesday.
Miliband, a details man, did not get stuck in the undergrowth of the budget as he might once have done but held to the big issue – the downgraded growth forecast. His job, he is learning, is not about handing in the best essay but often about getting good clips for the News at 10. At Westminster he leant into the despatch box. Though his voice grates for some, on the Commons microphones it comes out as quite a forceful, if nasal, basso profundo.
Those sitting near reported that the prime minister and chancellor “sledged” Miliband as he spoke – shouting “Bring on Balls” and “Balls is better”.
But Cameron is also a chronicler of politics, clocking the highs and lows of those beneath him, and on Monday, from the press gallery, it felt as if he was studying Miliband assiduously.
In a sleepy moment, after half the chamber had drained and Miliband quipped that calling intervention in Libya part of the “Blair doctrine” wouldn’t be a title either he or Cameron would necessarily choose, the Labour leader looked to Cameron for approval. The pair eyeballed each other, and Cameron laughed. There’s no other way to put this: it was a shared moment.
Cameron may know the conventional wisdom about his opponent is now out of date, a lagging indicator. The Miliband office knows this too. “You’re standing by a river and you are throwing rocks into the river,” one adviser says.
“You keep throwing and there’s no effect, they just fall to the bottom of the river bed. But you keep hurling and eventually some rocks, piling up, pierce the surface. You lob more rocks in and soon there’s enough rocks to get you across the river. Eventually there are pillars.” And then, you guessed it, some kind of bridge formation.
While the rocks sink to the bottom of the bed, there are frustrations: the night after the budget Miliband told his office that soon, but not yet, they would be given credit for the “squeezed middle” now being common political parlance. The interviewer who skewered Miliband over the concept, John Humphrys, himself used it on air on Tuesday morning.
Miliband told his office that Osborne’s budget, with all its moves on living standards, was a vindication of their work. The plan has been for three speeches since Christmas – two done, one more to come. The squeezed middle is one of his three pillars.
Another is his theme of the “British promise”: that each generation expects the next to do as well as it did, if not better, and the possibility that this is now stalling. The speech on the horizon will be on strong communities, about Labour’s response to the “big society” – which is to know the value, not just the price, of things.
So there’s been much hard work by Miliband behind the scenes, but his pillars still need an overarching theme, a sentence that sums them up. This may be required in time for a heavy month of electioneering before the votes in May.
For the first time Labour will push in the south-west, where it says its polling has picked up a 17% swing to Labour from Liberal Democrats who last time only voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out.
Before that Miliband must manage his appearance at the anti-cuts march on Saturday – he has sought to tread a line between aggressive anti-cuts language and sensible opposition. His team have taken steps to ensure he is not seen to be too close to the fiery union leader Mark Serwotka.
Miliband needs to learn not to relax once he’s put in a good shift: at the moment, when the light is off, it is really off. The prospect of a Miliband government in 2015 appears to be real enough for those bond traders of politics, the civil service.
I know of officials in a government department who have demanded proof that Miliband, and a Labour government, would support a particular long-term policy before they started working it up. After this week, this tendency may increase.