Ed Miliband has not always struck home against the coalition, even when the goal has seemed rather wide. In the Commons this afternoon, however, the opposition leader demonstrated that Labour’s critique of the government is getting ever firmer.
The wind is behind Miliband, of course: an economy that has sunk back into double-dip recession, rising unemployment, an superfluous shake-up of the NHS, clear splits between the Lib Dems and Tories on several fronts, including Lords reform.
But the Labour leader has tied this to his theme of a government where ministers are “working for their friends” to ever more effective deployment – even if you consider his use of the phrase “cronies” to be more suitable for a 6th form debating society.
“The heart of this problem is that the government stands up for the wrong people” is the damaging message. Labour is now repeatedly talking about rail fares, energy bills and bank charges – and criticising the overpaid bosses of such companies. And the high cost of living is unlikely to fade as a theme in the coming months.
Miliband’s job is made much easier by the Budget, in particular its cut in the 50p rate of income tax. Labour believes this was an open goal, a clearcut symbol of the coalition helping the rich rather than the “squeezed middle”.
The Labour leader cited an Osborne interview where he apparently admitted that there was a perception that this was a Budget for the rich.
“It is not the presentation of the tax cut for multimillionaires (that is a problem), it is the reality,” the Labour leader declared. “It is not the presentation of cuts in tax credits, it is the reality.”
An even more scathing move was Miliband’s decision to jump on Cameron’s description of austerity as “efficiency”.
(If you’re wondering where the PM may have picked up this idea, it may not be a co-incidence that entrepreneur Luke Johnson wrote in a recent FT column that: “…He (Cameron) should be thinking day and night of “efficiency” – or what the public sector calls austerity“.)
Miliband turned the knife by suggesting that the loss of 100s of thousands of jobs was merely “an efficiency drive” for Cameron. “He has gone from David Cameron to David Brent.”
The prime minister responded strongly, with a list of the coalition’s achievements already taking place; from scrapping ID cards and freezing council tax to setting up academies. “Clearing up the mess” left by Labour is his recurring theme, which still has resonance.
The PM said of his Queen’s Speech: “It is about a government taking the tough long-term decisions to restore our country to strength, dealing with the deficit, rebalancing the economy and rewarding people who do the right thing.”
Cameron also displayed a lightness of touch which reminded observers that he still possesses significant charm; joking that he had feared that Nadine Dorries was making the opening remarks, not the loyalist Nadhim Zahawi.
Labour remains vulnerable to the criticism that it lacks a full viable alternative policy platform.
The prime minister quoted Harriet Harman admitting she didn’t know how much the proposed bankers bonus tax would raise: “Um, I haven’t got quite the er, er, I know we have worked out that figure I’ll have to get back to you on that,” she said. Cameron moved on to Ed Balls admitting he didn’t have a fully-costed programme.
For now Labour is far ahead in the polls, its critique of the coalition hitting home in the wake of the Budget; remaining there may depend on its ability to construct a positive alternative.