East Meets Westminster: Cameron or Milband, who will win your heart and mind?

As we approach the new year, Richard Porritt looks at how the Prime Minister and Opposition leaders have performed in 2012

A YEAR ago Labour was enjoying a renaissance.

Ed Miliband finally emerged from the shadows of the sibling rivalry with David – which had threatened to split not only the party but also their family – and was starting to hit the Coalition where it hurt.

A points lead began to build in the polls and it was Labour that went into the new year happier. And it just got better and better for the opposition in the coming months with revelations about the closeness of Government figures to media moguls and the now infamous omnishambles budget which, in the end, became one big U-turn. Many would say that little has changed – the lead in the polls has remained constant, the Government continue to struggle with economic woes and splits within the party over everything from gay marriage to the level of cuts still loom large.

But despite all this, David Cameron himself remains fairly unscathed. In a year which could have seen him mortally wounded the PM has managed to rise above the arrows being flung in Westminster and dodge bullets being fired in Fleet Street.

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He is buoyed by his stance on the EU budget – although the coming days and weeks will prove an almighty test once again – and it appears people across the political spectrum are beginning to fall into line on the issue of state intervention of the press. The public appetite for legal under-pinning is waning and Prime Minister’s sensible road to a fairer and tougher regulated press is now all but written in stone.

How has he managed this? The PM has grown a layer of Teflon much like Tony Blair displayed in his decade in Downing Street – sadly for Gordon Brown he was more stick than non.

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Is it down to better media management? Are the dark arts of political spin whirling as fast as ever even in this post-Leveson landscape? Well, frankly, no.

Mr Cameron has just bedded in to the role. He has stopped worrying about the minor fights that he can only bog him down. Instead he is going after the big wins. A perfect example of this is the gay marriage row which has come out of nowhere in a bid to bite a large chunk out of the Government’s backside.

Early in his leadership of the Tories he made it clear he would support same-sex marriages in church. But he did not include it in his manifesto and the thinking has been that while big issues of austerity faced the nation it could wait. But the issues is once again in the news with Tory factions seemingly happy to go to war over it. Mr Cameron though has risen above the maelstrom simply reiterating his support and offering up a free vote – it is sensible leadership.

East meets Westminster has already dedicated column inches to applaud the PM’s stance on the EU – whether people support his position or not the political manoeuvring was very astute.

It is rare to have the leader of the opposition and the PM both performing well. In the recent past we have only seen damaged PMs against strong opposition or vice versa. As they slug it out in the run up to 2015 it is difficult to see who will blink first.

So what does Mr Miliband need to do to find that chink in the PM’s armour? You can bet his team of advisors have been asking the same question for most of the year. They will be hoping for a slip up – there are more stumbling blocks in the path of a Prime Minister than an opposition leader.

And Jane Basham – Labour’s police and crime commissioner candidate who ran an excellent campaign and actually beat Tory Tim Passmore on the first round votes – told this column she noticed a trend which will bring true blues out in a cold sweat.

“It is not just Ipswich and Waveney where the Labour vote is strong,” she said. “We believe that we won in areas including Rendlesham, Wenhaston and Dunwich which are very much traditionally Conservative. There are pockets of support for Labour across the region. Nationally we are making progress and locally there is a growing level of support from swing voters who are deeply worried about the Government.”

And she believes there is a building swagger within Labour – they believe Mr Miliband could snatch power: “I was at conference and it felt like there was a confidence building. Ed Miliband gave a superb speech and the whole party was – and remains – energised.

“But outside the party the general public are very worried about the way things are going. There are lots of people who are working as hard as they can in low-paid jobs but are still unable to break free from the benefits trap – why should those people suffer from a cut in benefits? There is a very worrying widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots and that is why this is not the time to punish those most in need.”

And on this point Mr Miliband faces a challenge. He is set to oppose that slashing of the annual increase in benefits even though great swathes think the cuts should hit people across the board – including much of that political elixir, the middle class.

Ms Basham continued: “It is a brave move for the party to oppose those benefits cuts but I think instead of chasing votes we are doing what is right and I think more and more people will see that is what Mr Miliband and Labour are willing to do.”

Mr Cameron has risen above his parties’ woes and he remains the favourite to cross the line first in 2015. But there are ever-growing signs that Mr Miliband’s successful 2012 is set to continue.

Twitter @Porritt.

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