Leading article: Finally, a real party political debate about what matters

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The Independent Online

After what Ed Miliband described as "the seven days in August that shook the nation", yesterday saw the party political gloves finally come off. The Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition both retreated to their comfort zones – for David Cameron it was his quintessentially middle-England constituency; for Mr Miliband the inner-city comprehensive where he went to school – to stake out their territory. And the contrast with last week's emergency session of Parliament, which produced a near-consensus of high seriousness, could not have been greater. These twin speeches found areas of agreement fast shrinking to the sidelines. At last, we have the start of a debate.

On the face of it, Mr Cameron's was the easier task. In decrying the "slow-motion moral collapse" of parts of society, he was preaching to the long-convinced. His audience might even have been tempted to ask what took him so long. There was not a flicker of the "hug a hoodie" syndrome. Mr Cameron was reverting to type – or he was playing to the gallery.

This was a shift that gave Mr Miliband some of his strongest lines, in what overall was a substantial and well-judged speech. It is hard now to remember the doubts that beset the early months of his leadership. Having capitalised on Mr Cameron's discomfort over ties with Rupert Murdoch, Mr Miliband has evinced a sophistication and solidity over the riots that is as well rooted in his party's thinking as Mr Cameron's need to tackle the "broken society" is in Conservatism.

As an unexpected leader of the Opposition, Mr Miliband has grown into his role, while eschewing simplistic options. Yesterday, he negotiated the fine line between explaining and excusing, between defending law and order and challenging the status quo. Points about wealth inequality, time pressures on parents, ethical shortcomings at the top as well as the bottom of society were well made; the temptation to make cheap points about "the cuts" resisted. Where Mr Cameron traced Britain's ills to neglected immorality and a general lowering of standards, Mr Miliband focused on the downside, as he saw it, of untrammelled markets and called for a "national conversation" and an inquiry.

To be in opposition, of course, severely restricts the possibilities actually to do anything. But Mr Miliband's early call for a commission of inquiry gives him a head start. If the clamour for an inquiry grows, and Mr Cameron is forced to revisit his initial decision – which is only reasonable after the worst disturbances in Britain for 30 years – this cannot but be seen as a government concession.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister proposed to address the riots by bringing the "broken society" to the top of his agenda, along with much harsher remedies than before. Justice, benefits, parenting and schools are all in the mix. But this strategy is not without risk. While it clearly chimes with the national mood – for now – legal constraints make it unlikely that the public's wilder expectations can be met. More than any other area of policy, it could also cause ructions, even jeopardise, the Coalition. The riots may have pushed voters to the right, but in the longer term, Mr Miliband's increasingly coherent Opposition could yet emerge with the advantage.