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[personal profile] kainosite

As I was contemplating Mr. Leader, I found myself wondering something that in light of recent polling we should probably all be asking ourselves:

As it stands now, Ed Miliband's deathgrip on his prepared script makes Chloe Smith seem like a master of improvisation. At its worst it leads to "These strikes are wrong" syndrome in interviews and a wooden performance at PMQs, but as Opposition Leader Ed can almost get away with it. He fares reasonably well at PMQs as long as his speech writers have written him good jokes and David Cameron answers predictably so that Ed's responses make sense.

It's when Cameron fails to answer as expected that Ed runs into trouble, because he seems utterly incapable of altering his next questions to compensate. If Cameron's great PMQs vice is going off-script and over-reacting to Labour provocations, Ed's is that he doesn't react to Cameron at all. At times he appears to be a sort of prerecorded hologram green-screened into the room. Great PMQs performers like Thatcher, Blair and Hague are characterized by their ability to think on their feet, something that seems hopelessly beyond EMil. How would he react to unpredictable and hostile questions if he were standing on the opposite side of the House?

I undertook an investigation to find out. By examining his performance at the dispatch box as Energy Secretary, I could see how he responded to questions and how well he was able to defend his policy. The results are somewhat surprising.

• Ed's entire problem is his coaching. As Energy Secretary he is affable, spontaneous, well-informed and helpful. It's one of the better ministerial performances I've seen- not as good as Hague or as Osborne at his best, but much better than Cameron, and orders of magnitude better than people like Lansley, May and Gove. On the level of Eric Pickles, let's say. He's immeasurably better than he is at PMQs. I can almost understand why the Labour Party elected him leader.

Ed is stiff and awkward and sometimes quite stupid now because he's terrified of making a gaffe, not because he's naturally hopeless. If the Government's stock continues to fall and his continues to rise, and as he grows more comfortable in his role, he may improve. Or not. He certainly does not seem to be someone who performs well under pressure or scrutiny, and that pressure and scrutiny will only increase as the general election draws nearer.

He still sits like the most awkward person on Earth, though.

• These were the friendliest debates I have ever seen in Parliament, which may have contributed to Ed's ease. Even foreign policy debates with cross-party frontbench consensus under the current Government tend to get trolled by the Awkward Squad getting in nasty digs about the wars and the CBCJS getting in nasty digs about foreign aid and the EU, so there's always an edge of tension. By contrast, these energy debates are a sort of Blue Peter Parliament where everyone works together to build a carbon capture system out of order papers and chewing gum.

There are probably several reasons for this. Back in 2009 Labour and the Tories were still pretending to care about climate change, so all three major parties and most of the minor ones have frontbench consensus on the issues. It also helps that Ed's Shadow Greg Clark is an absolute gem. Apparently he's a junior minister in CLG now, which pisses me off because I watch CLG Questions sometimes and I can't remember ever seeing him there. Somehow it's always thirty minutes of fucking Grant Schapps. But I digress. Greg's arguments are intelligent and nuanced and his relative lack of opportunistic partisan sniping undoubtedly helps to keep things amiable.

Meanwhile on the Treasury Bench, all three Energy ministers try to give real answers to real questions and gentle rebuttals to party political ones (Ed's answers are actually the most politicized and nasty of the three). Joan Ruddock is clever, informed, and entertaining. Harry Cohen is cute as a button, so it's a real pity he turned out to be an inveterate expenses crook and had to be booted out of politics. And of course the Government's majority was so big that there was no point in people complaining about their plans because they were going to railroad them through regardless, which may have taken some of the heat out of the debate.

The friendly climate may also have something to do with which party sat on which side of the House. I suspect Labour may just be fundamentally nasty in Opposition in the same way the Tories tend to be fundamentally nasty in Government. Someone once described the difference between them as "Labour believe they're Good, and the Tories believe they're Right," and I think there's a lot of truth to this.

Labour's conviction of their intrinsic Goodness means that people who disagree with them are intrinsically Evil. As long as the forces of Evil are in opposition they're relatively powerless and it doesn't matter, but let them get in government and suddenly the presumption of universal goodwill on which constructive cross-party collaboration depends evaporates. Meanwhile, the Tories' conviction that they're Right means that in government they feel no need to seek consensus or a mandate for their actions, because everyone who disagrees with them is factually Wrong and will either see the light once their brilliant plans are implemented or is too stupid or too ideologically blinkered to be worth talking to.

Whereas in government Labour are desperate to be seen as Good by the public and the rest of the House and spend a great deal of energy trying to convince everyone of their positions. (Sometimes they do it through misleading dossiers, but they do try.) In opposition the Tories know that sooner or later the foundation of Wrong on which Labour has built its fairytale sandcastle will be washed away by the harsh waves of reality, so while they have concerns about expenditure they don't view their opposition as an apocalyptic struggle against Evil. Their born-to-rule attitude perversely makes them a more patient opposition, because they trust that Labour's intrinsic Wrongness will eventually return the ball to their court. A Tory Government and a Labour Opposition are therefore a recipe for a vicious, divisive political climate in a way a Labour Government and a Tory Opposition are not.*

But the really interesting thing in these debates is the behavior of the backbenchers. Trolling is minimal, limited to Peter Lilley and to Paul Flynn*, who only trolls the Tories. Everyone else- and the SNP, Tim Farron, the greater and lesser BONEs and a wee, wingnutty Nigel Evans were there, so it's not like trolls were inadequately represented- is the soul of reason and decorum. The CBCJS don't even complain about wind turbines. They are far, far nicer to EMil than they ever are to Chris Huhne or Ed Davey. And the Treasury bench deals with Lilley's climate change denialist crap very humanely.

* This model seems to work at least as far back as Thatcher's first term. I don't know enough about the political climates of pre-Thatcher governments to make a fair assessment. It's probably worth pointing out that the pre-Thatcherite Tories and the pre-Bennite Revolution Labour Party were rather different political animals from their present incarnations, so factoring them into the model may obscure more than it illuminates.

** Paul Flynn might be an exception to my "Labour are bigger dicks in opposition than they are in government" theory, except I'm pretty sure he considers himself to be in perpetual opposition to everybody.

• Bercow is really, really biased toward Labour. I assumed he was just biased toward Chris Bryant and against David Cameron's government, and possibly against governments in general. This is... not the case. Every time Charles Hendry starts point scoring or Peter Lilley stands up to ask a troll question Bercow will cut them off for absolutely no reason. He's gotten much, much better about hiding this bias and adjudicating fairly in the current Parliament, and because the climate has grown so nasty he has a lot of opportunities to smack down people on both sides of the House and he appears more neutral. Here everyone including the Opposition Frontbench and Lilley are well-behaved and it's glaringly obvious.

It's mind-bogglingly bad. I'm pretty shocked, frankly, and it's causing me to reevaluate how I see his current rulings.


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