Steve Richards: His jokes fall flat, but could Ed have the last laugh?

Like a new band playing a stadium tour, he has hits that his indiscriminately belligerent critics ignore
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Take one look at the latest frenzy of doubt about Ed Miliband's leadership and the spark is tiny, a mere flicker of a puny flame. David Cameron made a good joke at Prime Minister's Questions about brothers falling out. On the same day, a poll showed the Conservatives move into a lead. Everyone expected Cameron to get a short- term bounce for his posturing in Europe and a joke is neither here nor there as the British economy totters on the edge of a cliff.

Take a closer look and in that apparently trivial moment there are two small clues as to why Miliband is not making more of a mark. The origins of his leadership are still an issue. Miliband stood against his elder brother partly because he wanted to take Labour in a different direction from David, or at least he thought he did. Because of the subsequent personal tensions, the early "Red Ed" label and the wider divisions in his party, the younger brother cannot specify any longer what those differences are or might have been. Instead, he seeks to woo his brother's supporters and declares that he and David think as one. This makes his act of fratricide seem like mere vanity, which it was not. None of this would matter if his leadership had been an unequivocal success. How a leader secured the throne is quickly forgotten if the crown is a neat fit. But even Ed would not claim unequivocal success so the stormy origins of his rise still make waves. That is why Cameron jokes about the brothers.

Cameron is good at telling jokes. Wit is an extremely important part of the political armoury, especially in opposition when words are the only weapon. Miliband fails to wound with wit. Unlike Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Cameron in opposition, he is not a mischief-maker. The real discontent among Labour MPs, therefore, was both silly and serious in that a minor exchange highlighted deeper issues.

The contradictory pattern applies when looking closely at what New Labour used to call the Big Picture. Taking the very biggest of pictures, Miliband is doing well. Before the election, an army of commentators gleefully predicted a Labour meltdown. This has not happened. Instead, Labour, for much of the year, was ahead in the polls and winning key by-elections. This is in marked contrast to the leaderships of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith to whom Miliband is sometimes wrongly compared. At this stage of the 1997 and 2001 parliaments, the governing Labour party was miles ahead in the polls.

And yet take a closer look. Hague and Duncan Smith were leaders in landslide parliaments against the backdrop of a booming economy. Miliband faces a hung parliament, a Prime Minister with limited grasp on policy presiding over an economic policy that has already failed on its own terms. This is the most benevolent context for a leader of the opposition since 1994. In this big picture, Miliband should be doing better.

In relation to the economy, he has made a big underestimated mistake. Arguing that Labour would have halved the deficit in this parliament, Miliband handed a gift to the Coalition. Superficially, his policy appears to accept the challenge of the deficit, but to concede defeat immediately to the more ambitious Coalition, one of several reasons for the perverse twist in which Miliband and Ed Balls are proven right on the economy as the Tories leap ahead of them in the polls.

We hear a lot from the ministerial advocates of austerity about maxing out credit cards and failing to fix the roof. These modern day Thatcherites have learnt from the Lady about the use of every day language to make apparent sense of wildly risky economic policies. The lack of such accessible language from Labour highlights a wider communication problem that Miliband needs to address. He mistook adulatory receptions at various Labour Party gatherings in the dying days of the last government for a natural Blair-like ability to connect. He was perfectly placed to make such connections then, the decent non- Blairite responsible for environmental policies. This is a much tougher gig.

But, like a new band suddenly playing a stadium tour, he has hits that indiscriminately belligerent critics ignore. His greatest strength is a rooted understanding of what has happened since the financial crisis in 2008, an insight that connects him naturally with many Liberal Democrats. Vince Cable, for example, was an admirer of Miliband's much criticised speech on the morality of markets. The speech was a brave, if flawed attempt to mount an argument rather than to pointlessly announce policies or take the lazily weak route of attacking his party. When he has raised issues from the "squeezed middle" to the hacking scandal, he swam with the tides rather than raging fruitlessly against them, as doomed leaders tend to do. Like the spark that was tiny and yet significant, tantalising ambiguity extends more widely. The propitious background, still bursting with opportunity, makes him fragile. Precisely because Miliband has the chance to make his mark in the next decisive year, he will have no excuses if he fails to do so. /