Friday, January 27, 2012

The Struggling Leaders

David Cameron can bestride the British political scene at the moment, calmly dispensing advice to other world leaders at Davos, with relatively little concern about being outmanouevred by the other party leaders. With the exception, perhaps, of Alex Salmond, and even he has had to force the pace of the Scottish Independence debate thanks to a Cameron tactical strike. But the two major English party leaders, Clegg and Miliband, are united only in the poor publicity, and hence public profile, that each has. Add in the lack of a serious opposition figure (as opposed to some of the collective opposition) within his own party, and Cameron can afford to be relaxed.

This can't last, especially not in the midst of a long and relentless recession - today's headlines about Stephen Hester's bonus show just how febrile the atmosphere actually is - but Cameron should enjoy the experience while he can. As to the other two, can they improve their position?

Nick Clegg is both the first Liberal leader in generations to be in government, but is of course similarly hidebound by that very arrangement. He has, in many respects, managed it very well, exercising real influence at the centre thanks in part to his positive relationship with Cameron, and managing to put out a distinctive Lib Dem message in more recent months. Politics Home's Paul Waugh observes the tactical success of Clegg's recent TV Sofas campaign on lower taxes for poorer earners, and it is worth emphasising that Clegg specifically, and the Lib Dems generally, have never been able to depend on any heavyweight media support. He is also a helpful lightning conductor for discouraged right-wing Tories who prefer not to attack their leader directly. Much better to direct frustration and blame towards Clegg, and never forget that the Tory media fields some very heavy, and very effective, guns in the British polity. There is an element of the old medieval tactic of not criticising the king but savaging his dispensable advisers instead. Clegg may yet emerge intact, and politically stronger, from his coalition experience if he can stay the course and keep perfecting the art of Liberal message making.

Miliband seems to be a worse case. For an opposition leader not to be making inroads at a time of economic convulsion is the sort of achievement no politician really wants to their credit. Even the Republicans have some credibility in the US political debate, and look at their cheerleaders. The latest Miliband interview, by Paul Waugh (again!) in the House magazine still shows him as strangely relaxed and optimistic, but whether his personal stoicism is enough to keep fending off grumbles from within his own party remains to be seen. If Yvette Cooper keeps sweet talking the Labour MPs, and Miliband keeps being duffed up by the bully Cameron at PMQs, no amount of zen-like relaxation will rescue him from the abyss. It must be Cameron's sincerest hope that his opposite number survives - somehow I think he'll find Cooper a far more difficult opponent both publically and in parliament. "Calm Down, Dear" only works once.

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