Politics & Policy

Spills and Thrills in the Westminster Obstacle Race

Labour leader Ed Milliband (Dan Kitwood/Getty)
A poll and a leaked memo are keeping things interesting in the U.K. election.

With every turn of the news cycle, the U.K. election becomes more entertaining. Since my piece in the Corner Friday, there have been two developments that make the race more uncertain.

The first is a table from the polling company, Survation, showing how each party leader is faring after the seven-leader debate and two more intensive interviews grilling both Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband. Survation’s boss, Damian Lyons Lowe, sums it up as follows:

“Whilst all seven leaders have seen some improvement in their approval ratings since the last Survation/Mirror poll — Nicola Sturgeon enjoying the largest increase — these two events have been a real boost for Ed Miliband, who has made such significant approval gains (+8 points) that the Labour leader for the first time is a net positive for the Labour Party on this measure.

That sounds like the faintest of praise, but it is quite significant in reality. The Tories have heavily over-invested in the argument that Miliband is an obvious lightweight whom voters can’t or shouldn’t take seriously. His personality is said to be their not-very-secret “secret weapon.” And there is indeed a slight geekiness to him that initially lends force to this dismissive attack.

But this portrait is beginning to fade and crack. To begin with, Miliband is not a geek but a skilled and mostly articulate professional politician who has risen rapidly to the top of politics. When he challenged his older brother, David Miliband, for the Labour leadership, he showed a boldness that the heir apparent lacked — and he beat him. He has since taken serious risks as Opposition leader without suffering a terminal reverse — notably, attacking Rupert Murdoch and News International and forcing a reluctant Cameron to concede Britain’s first official regulation of the press in almost 200 years. And he has begun to win some of the weekly duels with Cameron at PM’s Question Time.

Until the recent debates, when ordinary voters began to pay attention to politics, this real Ed Miliband had not really been seen by anybody but political anoraks. Now, however, the spotlight is on him, and the voters will get to reach an independent judgment.

As it happens, Miliband is a serious tax-and-spend left-winger with a post-Blairite progressive program. He’s a threat rather than a joke. His party is level-pegging with the Tories in the polls. The danger for them is that their five-year dismissive caricature of him is actually smoothing his path. All he need do to create a more favorable impression is to mount the stage, say something innocuous, and not actually fall over. If he does more than that — for instance, winning an exchange with a witty or passionate remark — he may seem impressive, forcing the Tories to switch their attack from Mr. Bean to Professor Moriarty. Under the influence of Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, they are already doing something like that by depicting the choice before the voters as “Competence or Chaos.” But it will be more difficult if Miliband’s rise in the polls is recording something real.

The second development is a leaked Whitehall memo recording a conversation in early March between the French ambassador and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Ms. Sturgeon herself had just returned to Scotland trailing clouds of glory following her success in the leaders’ debate. And when the memo was leaked, she had just reaffirmed her long-standing public stance on any post-election coalition deals: She would not allow the Cameron Tories back into Downing Street at any price.

So it was somewhat embarrassing when the memo, leaked to the Daily Telegraph, recorded her conversation with the French ambassador as follows:

Discussion appears to have focused mainly on the political situation, with the FM [i.e., First Minister Sturgeon] stating that she wouldn’t want a formal coalition with Labour; that the SNP would almost certainly have a large number of seats; that she had no idea “what kind of mischief” Alex Salmond would get up to; and confessed that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material).

Sturgeon has now denied that she expressed these views and demanded an inquiry into the leak. The French embassy, embarrassed, supports her denial — though it does so, shall we say, very ambiguously. The emerging explanation is that someone misunderstood a conversation that went through several hands before reaching the memo. The likely final verdict: No one was really to blame.

But several observers, including Charles Crawford, a former British diplomat who now writes an influential blog, thought that the memo had the ring of truth. Crawford estimated from internal signs in the memo that it came from the Scottish office rather than the Foreign Office. That has now been officially confirmed. And his analysis listed a series of reasons for concluding that the memo is genuine and Sturgeon said what it alleged. Here is the gist of his argument:

[The French diplomat Jean-Pierre] Coffinier told the Guardian that . . . he had checked his notes of that meeting, which took place at Holyrood after first minister’s questions on 26 February. “I have looked at my notes and absolutely no preference has been expressed by anyone regarding the outcome of the election,” he said. “Which suggests neither Nicola nor my ambassador said anything.”

Note the meticulous formulation there. The French CG says that his notes of the meeting revealed “absolutely no preference about the outcome of the election” which “suggests” (sic) that neither Sturgeon nor the ambassador said anything. All possibly true (enough). But so what? Notes of a meeting would not necessarily include jocular asides about sensitive political issues, and in any case that has nothing to do with what the CG might have said on the telephone to catch his interlocutor’s attention. That way of putting it looks like a cunning Gallic way to deflect attention from what happened (and to save his own skin?) by appearing to answer the question while in fact talking about something else entirely.


Obviously authentic memo, even if we do not know if we have seen all of it.

But the main reason that Sturgeon is likely to be doubted and the memo believed is that it confirms what almost everyone believes to be the private truth under a public mask. Publically, the Tories and the SNP are the bitterest of enemies. But they are silently united by the fact that their joint enemy is the Labour party. Cameron hopes that the SNP will take as many Labour seats in Scotland as possible to compensate him for the certain loss of Tory seats in England to Labour. Sturgeon trusts that Cameron will survive in Downing Street in order to weaken Labour and allow the SNP to appear as Scotland’s only effective defender against “Tory cuts.” But this is one of those loves that dare not speak its name — an affair that both partners want to remain clandestine. The Tories cannot be seen as willing to risk the Union for sake of partisan advantage; and the SNP cannot risk its strong anti-Tory reputation in the politics of the emerging Scottish People’s Democracy.

Now the affair is out in the open. It is unlikely to be pushed back behind the curtain unless the memo turns out to be a deliberate forgery. And it will have consequences.

The bloom is off Sturgeon; she is fighting back strongly, denying all, and her Scottish supporters will cry “foul” and “dirty tricks.” But she is no longer surfing along on a wave of unqualified popularity; she looks deceitful or at best shifty. Labour is already depicting her as a secret Tory supporter — anxious for a Tory government in order to fire up nationalism north of the border — with at least some success. The SNP will probably win fewer seats than the 45 or more expected a few days ago. Cameron is not personally damaged — indeed, the memo flatters him — but his electoral chances have been hit. He cannot now rely on such a large “cushion” of Scottish Labour losses that he needs to sustain him against the defection of Tory votes to UKIP. He was counting on these to make the Tories the largest party if he couldn’t gain an absolute majority. That secondary aim now looks more difficult.

In short, the leaked memo is the biggest event of the first week of the election. So who leaked it? We may never know, but the traditional first test is: Who benefits? Not Cameron, not Sturgeon, and not the Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg. That leaves Miliband and Nigel Farage of UKIP. My guess — call me a reckless chancer — is that Nigel has very few friends in the high places of Whitehall. That leaves Miliband, who lived there for most of the Blair-Brown administrations.

Either Miliband is the beneficiary of extraordinary luck, or he is running a well-prepared and well-connected campaign. In either case he probably pips Sturgeon at the post at the end of this week’s race. So there will be massive interest in this week’s debate without Cameron, which therefore pits Miliband against all the minor party leaders, notably Nicola Sturgeon.

— John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large at National Review.


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