This is the first parliament I can recall in which all three main party leaders faced leadership crises. Usually when one leader is in danger of being toppled it is partly because another is soaring. Now the three parties, contaminated by power or recent power, are fearful. In some ways the mystery in relation to Ed Miliband is why it took so long for him to be engulfed by a particularly frenzied crisis.
The other two leaders know what that feels like. Nick Clegg was briefly vulnerable after his party’s abysmal performance in the European and local elections in the early summer. He was fortunate that an attempt to replace him with Vince Cable was closer to a Brian Rix farce than a lethal coup. David Cameron has never been wholly secure and was compelled to offer a referendum on Europe partly to save his leadership.
Labour’s panic in recent days has managed to be both deep and shallow. The depth arises from the opinion polls, more significant in the shaping of the political mood than the noisy media chorus. Although Labour is disciplined to the point of dormancy, there is always a reaction in any party when polls suggest that prospects are suddenly worse than anticipated.
There is no point condemning the panic. A hand is scalded if it comes into contact with boiling water. A party despairs if it senses an avoidable electoral nightmare is about to unfold. MPs want to save their seats. In marginal constituencies, Labour candidates fighting to become MPs are hearing their leader’s name cited on the doorsteps as a reason why voters are turning away. In such circumstances a party does not remain docile.
And yet Labour’s frenzy took an odd form. The most quoted dissenter in recent days was not an MP, let alone a frontbencher, but the editor of the New Statesman, Jason Cowley. After much consideration Cowley backed Miliband during the 2010 leadership contest. In his exquisitely timed article last week Cowley condemned his choice for being an “old fashioned Hampstead socialist”.
The observation was retweeted excitedly as if it were an insight of genius. With a shortage of quotes from any actual Labour politicians the article became front-page news the following day. But the only interesting question to arise from the intervention was why Cowley endorsed Miliband in the first place if he disapproves of his views now.
If Miliband is an old-fashioned Hampstead socialist now, he was then. Miliband did not hide his left-ish opinions in the leadership contest and if anything has moved to a more expedient position since, in an attempt to keep his party united – pragmatic contortions that make all leaders internally unpopular.
But when a leader is down it spoils the fun to scrutinise or question the coherence or logic of those doing the kicking. I heard the Labour MP John Mann, one of the few politicians who spoke publicly during the frenzy, suggest that the solution for Miliband was to spend the next few months “knocking on doors and speaking to voters”.
Again this observation was widely repeated, as if it were a strategic insight of unique brilliance, when it was vacuous nonsense. The problem with modern leaders is not that they are out of touch. They are too neurotically in touch, reading with alarm the findings of focus groups and polls, and reframing their pitches accordingly.
Similarly, I did not read or hear of an alternative policy package that would, like a conjuror’s wand, propel Labour toward a decisive victory, sweeping the SNP, Ukip and the Greens out of the way. Nor did I read or hear a convincing route that leads towards a new leader before the election. Alan Johnson does not want the post. As for the rest, none of them wants to take over before the election. Contrary to reports, there was never a conversation between Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham about forming a joint ticket, let alone a tense exchange in which one agreed to be deputy. Some in the shadow Cabinet have leadership ambitions, but they are for later. In the immediate future, they want to be Cabinet ministers, quite an ambition in itself.
Even the anonymous plotters have given up, briefing that they will strike if Labour loses the election. They will not have to do so. If Labour loses, Miliband will be gone whether he wants to stay or not.
But the shallowness of the plotting should not obscure the depth of unease. One of the ways Miliband deals with the intense and often personal criticism that comes with leadership is to ignore it. When a speech, an interview or stance is criticised, his favourite response is to argue “this comes with the territory”. No, sometimes the speech, stance or interview is nowhere near good enough. Ideally, he needs to listen to criticism before making a speech. If not in advance, then he needs to listen afterwards.
There are elements of the leader’s repertoire that cannot be easily learnt, but Miliband did possess one rare skill when he stood for the leadership in 2010, a capacity to get on with colleagues. He performed almost an act of genius when, like a magician, he slipped out of the shadows of Gordon Brown.
The more experienced Ed Balls, a figure who had been closer to the heart of titanic policy battles, good training for leadership, was doomed in the contest by the association. Miliband, who was as ruthlessly committed to Brown, moved on effortlessly as if the past had never happened. In the long internal new Labour battle, one partly defined by caricature, Miliband had deftly acquired the reputation of being the “nice Brownite”. Now I am struck by how many Labour figures complain privately of Miliband’s lofty inaccessibility. They do not feel part of a team, a shared project.
Some time ago, Miliband’s close allies told him that, like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, he must establish distance with those he used to work and play with. But Prince Hal knew for sure he would acquire the crown when he moved on ruthlessly. As the frenzy over Miliband’s leadership fades he must rediscover his earlier capacity to get on with the unlikeliest of colleagues, binding a team with a shared sense of purpose. He can only play the role of a lofty, intimidating king if he wins the right to wear the prime ministerial crown.