John McTernan: Syria opens door for Miliband

The Tories want this to be about Miliband's character. He needs to make it about Cameron's competence. Picture: PA
The Tories want this to be about Miliband's character. He needs to make it about Cameron's competence. Picture: PA
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Labour leader must now go on the offensive over the government’s dismal record of running the country writes John McTernan

Last week, Ed Miliband skewered David Cameron. I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so. Amidst all the summer chatter about Miliband, one salient factor was missed – his core strength, which is ruthlessness. He did what was right – in that the case for effective military action was not made by the Prime Minister. He did what was popular – all the polls following the parliamentary vote on Syria show Labour’s lead over the Tories rising. And he played politics with this issue. Which is, after all, his job.

The initial Tory reaction was odd and panicked. The charge was led by William Hague, who claimed: “There’s some serious concerns in other capitals – not just across the Atlantic but in European capitals as well – about the position they [Labour] have taken in voting down a government motion.” This is extraordinary, not to say absurd. Once you say that there can be a parliamentary vote on an issue then you have to accept that other MPs – and indeed parties – may not agree with you. To then turn round and try to smear your opponents is pretty close to having contempt for democratic values. But, anyone who’s been to secondary school knows Hague’s game. It’s a Whitehall version of “a big boy did it and ran away.”

If you take this statement seriously, the Foreign Secretary is actually arguing that it is the leader of the Opposition who defines Britain’s position abroad, not the government. To which one’s initial rejoinder is surely – prove it. Though, on quick reflection, the right response is to say – ‘Well, if foreign governments don’t believe that either you or the Prime Minister speak for Britain, then the remedy is clear. Move aside. At once. And let someone they look to take over.’

Though Hague got his lines wrong, the attack didn’t falter and George Osborne went straight to the point. Miliband is not fit to be prime minister he asserted, a message amplified in The Sun and The Daily Mail.

This proved two things. First, that the Chancellor remains the government’s premier head-kicker. Second, that though No 10 can’t whip a vote, their adviser, Lynton Crosby, can craft a message. In a classic piece of political judo, the aim is to make Miliband’s strength – his victory last week – into a weakness. It is straight back to playing the man. Which goes to what the Tories believe is their ace-in-the-hole – their belief that voters don’t think that Miliband looks like a prime minister.

This is a trap for him. A trap similar to ones which the government have laid before. ‘What would you do about welfare/immigration/Europe?’ they ask. Questions which no wise opposition leader would answer this far from an election. But questions which seem reasonable to the public, particularly when echoed by commentators. The right strategy is not to avoid answering the questions – which can be portrayed as evasion or, worse, indecision. It is to break the frame. The Tories want this to be about Miliband’s character. He needs to make it about Cameron’s competence.

The public back what parliament decided last week, and they see Miliband as responsible – hence the increase in Labour’s poll lead. But more, they lay the blame at Cameron’s door. A poll yesterday showed that 59 per cent of voters think that the Prime Minister “behaved recklessly by publicly proposing military action in Syria without knowing that he had the support of Parliament”.

This is a criticism that Miliband needs to build on – and three years into the coalition government there is plenty of material. Take welfare. The “bedroom tax” turns out be not just cruel but also incompetent – it is costing around £1.5 billion a year, rather than saving money, as tenants forced out of social housing go into the more expensive private sector. Iain Duncan Smith’s major reform – Universal Credit – is running late and still not working. Who would have thought that? After all, it is simply a government-procured IT system that needs to run on real-time payroll information for millions of workers. What could possibly go wrong?

Then there’s the economy. A government which prides itself on austerity still cannot get growth off the floor – a stark contrast to the US where President Barack Obama rejected austerity and is reaping the rewards of growth. The coalition can’t get houses, roads or railways built. This is fertile ground for Miliband, but it needs discipline. Labour’s attacks are scattergun. There is no golden thread, no arc of an argument. Competence provides that core critique.

Problems with the NHS are not about privatisation, they are about the Tories mismanaging their reorganisation and breaking the promise to “cut the deficit, not the NHS”. Overcrowded primary schools south of the Border at the beginning of term are about the lack of proper planning. Youth unemployment is about a badly-run economy. Clement Attlee was once asked by a minister why he was being sacked. “Not up to the job”, came the reply. That is what needs to be rammed home by Labour.

A door has opened for Miliband because of last week’s vote. He needs the public to take a second look at him and a long hard look at Cameron. He needs to break the “character” frame and change it to one of the government’s competence. And he needs his own judo move. There is something about the relentless Tory attacks on Labour that is backfiring. All hope and optimism is being drained from British politics. Miliband’s rejoinder has to be: “This lot are incompetent, but there is nothing wrong with Britain that can’t be fixed with a change of government.”

l John McTernan was, until ­recently, communications ­director to former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and was political secretary to prime minister Tony Blair.