Labour needs to stop the back-biting and regain its confidence
In politics, as in sport, confidence is an invaluable currency. Tony Blair had it, and it rarely seemed shakeable--at least after a stiffening drink or two. Gordon Brown had it--and then lost it, precipitating a political slide spectacular for its steepness. David Cameron has it, although recently his self-assurance has seemed more brittle than many--especially in the Labour party--had suspected.
Ed Miliband begins the new political season with more confidence than he has enjoyed since his election a year ago. He has improved at the dispatch box. He performed well during the phone-hacking scandal. He articulated some of the subtleties behind the riots without falling into the obvious traps. Although little of this will have even registered with the public, and there is much work to be done to rebuild Labour's election prospects, Miliband will rejoin political battle knowing that if the supply of political confidence is fixed, a little but important amount has been redistributed in his favour.
This is because what was previously a hopeful suspicion has solidified into a fact: David Cameron is beatable. Three important vulnerabilities have become apparent over the last six months. First, Cameron's reputation as a political weathervane, wet-fingered to the prevailing winds of the British public when his cabinet members are not, now looks overstated. Indeed, his political instincts have at times been positively duff. It took the Prime Minister far too long to recognise the threat posed by the phone-hacking saga, in particular to his ability to set the political agenda. Similarly, Cameron at first could only offer a limp and late reaction to the riots, a mistake he was able to correct before Labour could really take advantage.
Second, Cameron has exhibited a pattern of political cravenness compounded by a poor grasp of policy detail. Think of the health bill: at first unsure of what it actually contained, the Prime Minister then seemed willing to abandon whatever was required to appease his coalition partners and silence the cacophony of criticism. Ken Clarke's sentencing reforms were also abruptly abandoned following a flutter of confusion at No 10. And the Big Society has suffered enough about-turns to induce vertigo even amongst its most ardent supporters. Now all this could be construed as refreshing honesty, the inevitable result of allowing ministers more autonomy or, more insightfully, as a return to a longstanding Tory tradition of ruthless political pragmatism. But sooner or later sensible people will ask what the Prime Minister believes in and what he is prepared to stick up for.
Third, Cameron's--and the coalition's--political lodestar is falling from the sky. Few would now agree that an overwhelming focus on deficit reduction is the right one: pressure is mounting for the government to articulate a plan to get the economy growing again either through demand or supply-side interventions (or both). But this new emphasis creates a problem for the coalition, arranged as it was around the centrepiece of deficit reduction. Will the two parties be able to agree as easily about which interventions are most appropriate and fair? Coalition squabbling whilst the country stagnates would quickly erode public perceptions of economic competence.
Of course to say Cameron is beatable is very different to beating him. But he no longer looks indomitable, and he is certainly no political colossus bestriding the coalition with genteel ease. Labour needs to remember this as it heads to its conference in Liverpool later this month. Rather than continue the back-biting and navel-gazing, the party needs to focus like a laser on the government's vulnerabilities. Intimidated for too long, Labour must regain its confidence and recognise that although winning again will be difficult, Cameron and the Tories can be defeated.