The man who would be PM keeps his cards close to chest and his rhetoric woolly

 

Manchester

He was supposed to be walking into the bear pit. He emerged unscathed, with a jaunty air and a geeky smile.

Ed Miliband's question-and-answer session yesterday was a triumph for party managers, if no one else, as he left the East Manchester Academy without serious damage and, crucially, without having given any fresh detail about the party's plans for governing the country.

On a day when he had been urged to show his true character to the electorate, the Labour leader arrived in his trademark blue suit. The only concession to demands for him to look more human was his controversial decision to go without a tie.

Miliband himself, at least, appeared confident in the face of potential enemies, taking questions in threes and, once he had despatched them with his vaguely reassuring rhetoric, chirruping, "Next round!". Despite the hopes of many, this was no boxing contest, or at least not a very good one; the leader danced around nimbly, without ever taking a blow – or landing one.

He did, at least, attempt to stir the audience into action, urging non-Labour supporters in particular to hit him with their best shots. When he spied one likely sceptic in the front row, he immediately gave her the honour of asking one of the first questions.

Unfortunately for those hoping Miliband was going to demonstrate his resilience in the face of a good going-over, the "critic" turned out to be a pretty friendly foe. "I'm up for persuasion!", protested Jean Betteridge, and proceeded to ask Miliband for his opinion on the cuts to free legal advice. The invitation to attack the Government without having to offer an alternative was eagerly accepted.

Ultimately, it was the Miliband cheerleaders who caused Ed the greatest problems. A health service worker who announced he was addressing not the Labour leader but "the next Prime Minister" urged Miliband to repeal the controversial NHS Bill if elected.

Miliband assured the questioner that he was "geekish" enough to know every line of the offending bill but the pledge to ditch it was not forthcoming from a leader desperate to avoid issuing any promises.

Instead, Miliband mumbled vague assurances about his plans to make the NHS operate on "a different legal basis".

Like so many of his responses, it was infuriatingly woolly, devoid of controversy and an image-maker's dream.

Miliband is a cerebral motivational speaker who fails to get the pulse racing, but who still somehow manages to appeal to the intellect.

The mystery man who would be PM revealed nothing about himself or his party, aside from scripted opening remarks about plans to reform energy suppliers and pension funds. Miliband aides have returned to concentrate on something he does well, despite the lack of policy detail involved; and that, for the moment, is enough for them.

In his closing remarks, the leader reminded the audience of Tony Blair's encounter with Sharon Storer, a voter infuriated by NHS inefficiency during the 2005 election campaign: "We need that sort of passion from the electorate."

But not from its leaders. Yet. How Manchester could have done with a bit of Sharon Storer yesterday afternoon.

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