Hasta la vista, Dave baby. That wasn’t quite how he put it. But something had clearly happened during the 48 hours since Ed Miliband disavowed any claim to be “macho.” We were invited to join him in an hour-long transformation from geek to Terminator. If the Tories “want to have a debate about leadership and character, be my guest”.
In fact, he’d already shown what a tough guy he was. Standing for the leadership in the first place – “really hard for my family” as he delicately put it. Taking on Rupert Murdoch. Saying no to “the rush to war” in Syria. And once in government? The energy companies are “not going to like” a two-year price freeze “but they have been overcharging people for too long.” Greedy developers? “Either use the land or lose the land.” Bring it on!
He repeatedly addressed delegates as “friends”. Which after a speech studded with four standing ovations, they seemed to be. Abandoning the teleprompter again freed him to wander the stage in what lurched at times from fireside chat to something akin to a rap based on endless variations of the mantra “Britain can do better than this” to a revivalist sermon.
“Friends, friends, let us hear the voices of young people that haven’t been heard for a long time.” This turned out not to cue a choir of surplice-clad teenagers singing spirituals but a more prosaic pledge to give votes to 16-year-olds.
Odder was when, approaching the radioactive passage on party reform (dressed up as a means of achieving mass party membership rather than a way of getting the union barons off the party’s case), he joked: “Here is the bit you have all been looking forward to.” And rolled his eyes in a way that fused Mr Bean with Ken Dodd.
But all in all, pretty good. Unexpectedly personal on the Scottish referendum, he cited Cathy Murphy – “Friends, Cathy is with us here today” – a Glasgow Labour delegate who had had life-saving surgery in a Liverpool hospital. If this stopped just short of “Scottish independence kills”, the delegates loved his “I don’t want Cathy to become a foreigner in the United Kingdom”.
He even dressed up his new tough immigration policy in conference-friendly terms, castigating gangmasters and rogue landlords exploiting foreign workers.
So this was the new “Make my day” Ed Miliband. Deriding the “divide and rule” tactics of Cameron’s Australian attack-dog strategist, he told the PM: “You can tell your Lynton Crosby it might work elsewhere, but it won’t work here.” Given what Crosby will be throwing at him come 2015, he’d better be right.