Up until now commentators have predicted that the Tories will use the Prime Minister at every given opportunity, safe in the knowledge that Ed Miliband’s reputation as a political weirdo is still worse than being seen as a Tory toff in the eyes of the electorate.
Indeed, running a presidential style campaign has been chalked up as such a dead cert that Labour has been struggling to counter it for weeks. Frustrated claims from behind the scenes that Team Ed won’t let shadow cabinet ministers make any policy announcements are rife and getting louder.
Today’s press conference marks a subtle but clever diversion from that path. Cameron is entrusting George Osborne, Theresa May, William Hague, Sajid Javid and Nicky Morgan to announce a key spending review into Labour’s election promises. The message, that Labour lacks economic credibility and therefore the skills to form a government, is a core part of the Conservative election strategy and therefore not an announcement to be taken lightly.
And yet all the names listed above, bar perhaps Hague, have been the subject of recent speculation about their ambitions for the top job. David Cameron’s job. When you look at it like that it’s tough to think of a more presidential move a leader could make at this point. This is Cameron asserting his authority while simultaneously giving the impression that his team is more united, more confident and more credible than the opposition. “No in-fighting here, not on this side of the fence”, it screams. It’s clever, because while the he-said she-said announcements about unfunded policy pledges don’t cut much cloth, voters really hate squabbling in the ranks. Labour appears not to have learnt the only useful lesson Gordon Brown sought to teach.
Of course, Cameron’s decision to steer clear of the limelight, for this morning at least, could also be a sign that his party is reacting to the polls, which have tipped in Labour’s favour of late. And don’t expect him to be out of the way for too long. But George Osborne’s credibility with the public on the economy is a strong card to play when Miliband is stuck between a rock and a hard place himself. It’s always going to be tough to get your message out when you’re keeping your shadow chancellor, the one with actual experience in government, out of the public eye.
Labour’s plan to run a grass-roots campaign to counter the spending power of the Tories is a nice idea. It worked for Barack Obama. But the decision belies the fact that Miliband is already marching to Cameron’s tune. He has accepted that the Conservatives will run a presidential campaign and prepared accordingly, leaving himself at the mercy of an already impatient, and not altogether united, shadow cabinet. A dangerous move indeed.