‘What kind of PM would Miliband make’, Westminster Policy Institute, Westminster Policy Institute, 6 March 2015

Not that many people are prepared to go into bat for Ed Miliband. But if they do, they almost always make the following observation.

Ed spent a year-and-a-half in the Cabinet between 2008 and 2010, and spent more than five years working as an advisor in the Treasury before he entered parliament in 2005. If he does become Prime Minister after May 7th, then, he will start the job with far more familiarity with government at the highest level than some of his recent predecessors, not least Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Ed’s defenders will also note that, behind the scenes, that wise old bird, Lord Falconer, has been spending serious time working out exactly how Number Ten is going to be run if and when Ed eventually gets there.

So do they have a point? Are experience and preparation really the keys to governing successfully? Or might Ed Miliband possess shortcomings and limitations that no amount of Whitehall nous and careful planning can overcome?

Anyone who talks to those who worked with, near or under Ed, whether in or out of government, soon gets used to being told it can be far more difficult than it should be to get a decision out of him.

Undoubtedly, some of those who complain are actually complaining about the fact that, because Ed ‘does detail’ and isn’t afraid to question common wisdom, any delay in getting stuff signed off has as much to do with the inadequacy of their case, or the way they’ve presented it, as it does with any ‘chronic indecision’ on his part.

That said, tales of the latter are so widespread that it’s hard to believe that there isn’t at least a grain of truth in there somewhere.

The same goes for another frequent moan about Miliband by those who know him well – namely that, while he continually consults others, he’s often totally convinced that he knows best, meaning that he’s prone to spend an awful lot of time listening without really hearing.

And then there’s his tendency, as some see it, to surround himself with a self-cancelling mix of bold blue-sky thinkers, on the one hand, and depressingly cautious campaigners and uninspiring old-hands on the other.

Always remember, say some who’ve seen Ed operate at first-hand, that this is a guy who grew up under Gordon Brown – a guy who, for all his denials, is no less anxious than Brown was about what the papers are saying, who almost relishes a crisis because that is when many people think he is at his best, who, if truth be told, only really values the opinion of insiders rather than outsiders, tired old-pros rather than genuine insurgents. And you only have to look at Brown, their argument runs, to see that simply knowing one’s way around the corridors of power means nothing if you don’t have the skill-set – or the temperament – to make the most of that power when your moment finally comes.

Such criticisms may, though, be overly-harsh and presumptive.

For one thing, Brown seemed to have done surprisingly little detailed preparation before he moved into Number Ten – something which, thanks to Charlie Falconer, and a whole host of pro bono management consultants and various shadow teams, can’t be said of Labour under Ed.

For another, Ed has other qualities that may help make him a better Prime Minister than many imagine. What he sees, for instance, as ‘intellectual self-confidence’ (and others see as good old-fashioned arrogance) means he is capable of sticking to his guns and seeing things through rather than being blown off course by the slightest side- or head-wind.

Somewhat paradoxically, Ed is also – relatively-speaking anyway – an emotionally intelligent politician, meaning that he may be better able than some previous occupants of Number Ten to manage relationships with colleagues and supporters, both in and outside parliament.

Who knows whether these qualities, when weighed against any shortcomings, will be enough to ensure that Ed Miliband can successfully negotiate the myriad challenges that a Labour government – especially one still wanting to do so much at a time when there is so little money – will inevitably face?

Certainly there are some, even within the Party itself – particularly those who have never once wavered in their belief that five years ago Labour elected the wrong brother – who have long since convinced themselves (and who never waste a chance to try to convince others) that, even if by some miracle Ed makes it to Downing Street, he is bound to make a complete hash of things.

Not everybody, however, is quite so pessimistic. Indeed, even some of those sadly willing to admit that Miliband is hardly the perfect candidate haven’t entirely given up on the possibility that he may yet surprise everyone should he get to be PM.

In spite of the best efforts of his many detractors, not least those in the press and in CCHQ, it may not be very long before we all get the chance to find out.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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