Gosh Ed’s getting a lot of advice at the moment. Well, I say a lot, most of it seems to boil down to the same two key elements: Ed needs to define himself better and Ed needs to be bold. Sometime Ed is told to boldly define himself, sometimes to define himself boldly. But those are definitely the key themes, boldness and definition.
I agree that Ed has not yet properly defined his leadership with the public. The Westminster Press themselves are stumbling from Red Ed to Odd Ed via Dead Ed and Fratricidal Ed along the way. Ed needs a bold moment of definition, he needs a game changer.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think most of the voices calling for Ed to be “bold” actually mean bold. I think they mean macho. They want Ed to adopt some of Blair’s swagger, or Brown’s clunking fist. Even Ed’s admirers talk of his “core of steel” – a pointless hangover from too many comic book, 2D interpretations of what a hero is and can be.
But Ed is not macho. Nor does one have to be macho to lead. In fact the worst thing Ed could do now would be to attempt to adopt a macho pose he could in no way sustain, simply to appease those voices who would then turn around and decry him for being no good at it. It wouldn’t be bold. It would be a facsimile of what a political class has become used to being told is bold. It wouldn’t work.
For Ed to change the game, he needs to change the rules. I agreed with those who said that the post-hacking cries of “let Miliband be Miliband” were largely hubristic and overly indebted to what was, at the end of the day, a work of fiction that took a great deal of faith-leaping for granted. But actually, to be bold now, Ed must play to his strengths, and these include his thoughtfulness and reasonableness.
So how does one change the game by being thoughtful and reasonable? I would suggest, by doing so in an unexpected high-profile and unexpected arena. Where better than PMQs?
Ed Is regularly lambasted after PMQs for not being macho enough, and for letting Cameron win the battle of the jibes. Ed will never regularly win over the Bullingdon Bully if he continues to play by his rules. But PMQs is one area where the opposition can set the tone. The PM may have the last word, but he must respond to (but not – as we’ve see – necessarily answer) the questions put to him by Ed.
So Ed. I offer you this question for the opening of PMQs next Wednesday:
Would the Prime Minister agree with me that these are serious times, deserving of a serious debate? That, in his words, this isn’t the time for Punch and Judy politics? Will the Prime Minister join me in putting an end to the bluster, bad jokes and boorishness – from both sides – and agree to join me in an adult, dignified and informative debate on the issues the public care about?
At the same time, his team should release a statement saying:
In this time of unprecedented uncertainty in so many areas of our public life, the public deserve an opposition more interested in holding the Government to account than scoring points. I know I haven’t always done that.
David Cameron has some good jokes – some of them not even about my Brother! – and I’m happy to accept that this is an area he excels in. But this isn’t Britain’s Got Talent, it’s the one opportunity a week for the Prime Minister to be asked and to answer questions about the big issues his Government is dealing with.
I like a laugh as much as the next person. I love it when my backbenchers laugh at my jokes. I am human after all. But right now I think it’s more important that we get the answers the public deserve to the questions they want answered.
So here is my promise to the Prime Minister. I promise to treat the office of Prime Minister with the respect it deserve, and to work with the Prime Minister – if he’ll agree – to restore the dignity to these proceedings that he and the office he holds warrant. No more one-liners, no more point-scoring, just real questions that deserve real answers.
And to you the public I promise this: I will raise your concerns with the Prime Minister. Every week, anyone who wants to can email PMQs@labour.org.uk with questions they feel the PM should answer. I can’t promise I’ll ask everything you send me, but I can promise I won’t let a week go by without raising your concerns alongside my own.
These are serious times, deserving of a serious debate. I hope we can work together to change the way we talk to each other in politics and public life, for the benefit of all those we serve who have been asking us to do so for so long.
So far, so bold. And here’s the thing – were Ed to take up this idea, I absolutely expect him to be crucified for it. At first. And that’s where the nerves of steel are going to have to kick in. I firmly believe this could be the game-changer Ed needs, but like many of his successes in challenging the orthodoxy it won’t be accepted overnight.
I’ve said before, that what Ed can most learn from Tony Blair is not his style, but his confidence in his own style. If Ed sticks to his guns, refuses to return to the jibes and point scoring, but merely illuminating the impact of the Government’s programme, does the kind of politics that suit him (and incidentally, do not suit the less serious David Cameron) this could be a Clause IV moment of his own, in his own style.
This post first appeared on Labour List