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Tristram's handy if Ed Miliband loses Labour's love

The Shadow Education Secretary has had such a good week that the party may have shifted on its axis
  • @johnrentoul

The sudden emergence of Tristram Hunt as the next leader of the Labour Party has been one of the most amazing transformations of modern politics. Last week, I wrote about the absence of rivals for Ed Miliband's job, and how he reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet to preserve the vacuum around him.

Seven days since I said that it was hard to answer the question – Who would replace Miliband if Labour loses the 2015 election? – the answer has presented himself. Indeed, he presented himself in all available media outlets all week, including The Mail on Sunday, Andrew Marr's show and BBC Question Time. He even presented himself in the House of Commons, where he was granted an "urgent question" about the Al-Madinah free school.

In those appearances, he achieved the most important thing in politics. He didn't make any mistakes. He was not outstanding, but he was confident, fluent and gently humorous. There was an odd moment with Marr in which he said knew all about rigour because he has a PhD from Cambridge, but he said it almost as if he were mocking himself. He had to disown some old comments about free schools being for "yummy mummies", which were shrugged off easily enough.

Most important, he started to shift Labour policy back towards the centre, where it belongs. Pedants and Conservatives rushed in to point out that he was repeating what Stephen Twigg, his predecessor, had said. But the emphasis was different. Where Twigg sounded as if he were against free schools, Hunt sounds as if he is in favour of them, provided they are called "parent-led academies". Advanced policy pedants detected a nidge of difference in an article Hunt wrote last week for Labour List, in which he opposed "prioritising investment on new schools in areas that are already well served by good schools". Previously, Twigg had opposed new free schools in areas with surplus places. Now, Hunt opposes new free schools in areas with surplus "good" places. By such inches is progress made.

Then, on Question Time, Hunt said: "I'm in favour of performance-related pay" for teachers. This was important not so much for the policy but because it was a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the leadership of the National Union of Teachers. There are problems with performance-related pay, and the evidence where it has been tried is mixed, but Hunt was putting himself on the right side of the divide between heads paying good teachers more and union leaders saying all teachers should get automatic increments.

Above all, Hunt did a better job in a week than his predecessor had in two years of saying how much he respected teachers and wanted to raise their professional status.

One Labour frontbencher told me that Ed Miliband had promoted the "telegenic" Hunt as a way of building up a rival to Chuka Umunna. If so, it worked about as well as making Stalin general secretary of the Communist Party as a counterbalance to Trotsky. While we are noting historical parallels, the rise of Hunt also confirms the importance of the education brief in politics. It was David Cameron's shrewd decision to turn down the shadow Chancellor post in favour of shadow Education Secretary after the 2005 election that propelled him to the Conservative leadership seven months later. Cameron used the brief to embarrass Labour by being more Blairite than Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, and to get himself on television talking about opportunity for all.

The reporting of the Labour reshuffle as "the cull of the Blairites" may be beside the point. Hunt is a "Blairite" in that he voted for David Miliband, albeit one who has been totally supportive of the younger brother. The shuffle was also a curbing of the Balls-Cooper faction, and it was interesting that The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Ed Balls had been spotted dining with Peter Mandelson at Simpson's in the Strand last week. Mandelson expressed public doubts about Miliband's energy-price freeze during Labour conference, while Balls expressed his doubts privately beforehand. Last Thursday, Roger Liddle, a friend of Mandelson, and Labour education spokesman in the Lords, warned that the price freeze might be seen as "a return to the 'us' and 'them' politics of the past".

These are mere details, however, compared with the unintended consequence of the reshuffle, which may be – although it is surely too early to say – to provide the party with someone who could be a more popular leader than the incumbent. Tristram Hunt has had a good week. He has had such a good week that Labour might have shifted on its axis. If he continues to avoid making mistakes, he could easily be the front runner to succeed Miliband if Labour loses in 2015.

Furthermore, the moment such a realisation dawns is the moment Miliband becomes vulnerable. Despite the start last week of a "One Nation" group of Labour MPs, there are no such things as Milibandites. If Labour's downward slope in the opinion polls crosses over the Tories' upward slope, and Labour finds that it has an alternative leader who might reverse that, then change becomes possible, even before the next election.