What now for Cameron, Miliband and Clegg? After a poor election, each party leader has an acute identity crisis to face

Cameron’s party will not tolerate a repeat of his Blair-like attempt at a public identity

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The European election results are a freakish nightmare for all three main party leaders. Normally, when two of this trio are in the doldrums, the other has cause for optimism. But now optimism of any sort is off the political menu – for Labour, Lib Dem and Tory.

The Conservative-supporting newspapers and tweeters have managed to convince themselves that the results are good news for David Cameron, even though his party came third. They proclaim with more confidence than the current situation merits that the level of Labour support means Cameron will win next year. But Cameron faces a very big challenge from the rise of Ukip, one that relates to fundamental questions about his public identity and sense of purpose.

Which Cameron will we see over the next year? Will he be the leader who sought to at least appear to be on the centre ground at the last election and the Prime Minister seemingly at ease working with Liberal Democrats? Or will he move even further to the right than he is at the moment, banging on about Europe and playing up the common policy ground between Conservatives and Ukip?

His party will not tolerate a repeat of Cameron’s early Blair-like attempt at a public identity, and anyway his copying of New Labour was out of date when he made the act of imitation. Nonetheless, as Cameron woos Ukip voters, he sits next to Nick Clegg on the front bench and cannot escape entirely the images, quotes and policies of his early “modernising” pitch. There will be an awkward dissonance.

Politics can be understood in musical terms. Parties win when all parts come together in an accessibly melodious composition. Discordance and related issues of authenticity are Cameron’s problem. He faces easy questions about whether the Tories should agree pacts with Ukip. Rightly, he dismisses the proposition, one that would signal desperation and make impossible an appeal to parts of the electorate unmoved or alarmed by the rise of Ukip. But the rise of a party to the right of a right-wing Conservative party is not the obvious recipe for an outright Cameron victory.

In a very different way, I suspect Ed Miliband’s private agonies will also be about identity. The elections exposed his fragilities as a leader and the tensions at the top when a campaign does not go to plan. Miliband stood for the leadership partly because he had come to believe that he was an accomplished public communicator. Standing on the centre of the political stage, he discovers that being feted for a speech at a Fabian conference or praised by columnists is no guide or preparation for the titanic demands of leadership.

The elder Miliband began to realise his limits when photographed looking silly with a banana. The photo of Ed and a bacon sandwich will be similarly confidence-sapping. Miliband is trim and can look good in stylish suits, but a hostile media can make someone become “weird” with a single image. A Miliband ally tells me that he was devastated when, fairly early on as leader, John Humphrys suggested live on Today that he was too “ugly” for leadership. Humphrys stressed he meant the term as a metaphor, but understandably Miliband was upset. These people are human. Still, frailty can feed on itself and there is a danger for Miliband that in trying to rectify mistakes he makes more of them.

Miliband has a simpler task than Cameron in some respects. Polls suggest that immigration is a bigger concern to voters than Europe. Miliband can and should put the case for intervening when necessary in the labour market as part of his wider willingness to act when markets fail. Opponents of immigration on the liberal right must explain why they are against government intervention in all markets except the labour market – in which case they become passionately statist. Miliband has the advantage of coherence and consistency. An ugly debate about Romanian neighbours could become a more elevated but equally accessible one about the willingness of governments to intervene when markets, labour markets included, require a degree of regulation.

Labour’s US signing, David Axelrod, has been mocked for telling Miliband that voters need to know more about the forest and not just the individual trees. The advice is obvious but also astute. Miliband keeps a relatively low profile as a leader. When there are big policy announcements it is quite often shadow Cabinet members who are interviewed about them on the Today programme. Miliband should be doing more of the interviews, connecting the announcement to wider themes, and in a style that is conversational. I have never heard voters say, “I am suffering from a cost-of-living crisis”, however badly-off. Farage does not declare that he will address an ”EU crisis”. He speaks as voters speak. In the early 1990s, Gordon Brown hit upon a technique for dealing with soundbites in TV packages. He repeated the same carefully rehearsed phrase again and again. But Miliband has not yet realised that this technique does not work so well in interviews.

Nick Clegg is a good media performer, which shows that such skills are not a guarantee of electoral success. Clegg was doomed after the early months of the Coalition when he seemed at ease in partnership with a party of the radical right. In forming the Coalition, he secured the agreement of his members, but he should have taken more care of those who had voted for the Lib Dems, not just party members. A lot of them were on the left. Vince Cable might attract some disaffected voters if he becomes leader this summer, but the route to the top post would be so fraught it would make matters worse. Almost certainly, Clegg will remain leader and be under even more intense pressure to show he and his party are different from the Tories, while Cameron will need to mark further distance from Clegg.

An immediate consequence of these elections will be a final year of coalition between two parties that need to be a good deal more urgent in showing how much they disagree with each other.

After the 2015 election only one or perhaps two of the three will be suffering similar agonies as they are now. Cameron or Miliband will be celebrating as Prime Minister. But for the victor there will be new nightmares. He will have a tiny majority or no majority aat a point when voters are angry and parties are weak.  Entering or re-entering No 10 as a Prime Minister is usually authority-enhancing. Next time it might not be.

Twitter: @steverichards14

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