Grant Woodward: Clear choice between a winner and a lost cause

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THE fact that David Miliband quit politics to join a humanitarian aid group known as the International Rescue Committee grows more ironic by the day. The party he should now be leading into a general election finds itself urgently in need of salvation.

Ed Miliband’s credibility as a Prime Minister-in-waiting is vanishing before our very eyes. His failure to mention the deficit in his speech to the Labour Party conference wasn’t just another embarrassing gaffe, it was an unmitigated disaster. Forgetting something as fundamental as the management of Britain’s still fragile finances tells floating voters – most of whom will see it as the most important aspect of the job he was auditioning for – that this is a man and party who simply can’t be trusted with the still tentative recovery.

Seeking to exploit this growing suspicion that Miliband Jr would be a liability in Number 10, it’s now clear that the Conservatives’ canny election strategist, Lynton Crosby, is pitching the vote next May as a straight choice between Prime Ministers – the worryingly wobbly Ed versus the increasingly statesmanlike David Cameron.

It is a move driven as much by necessity as desire. With an outright majority still something of a long shot, it’s far easier to concentrate the public’s minds by painting the race as a shoot-out between the two.

“It doesn’t matter if Parliament is hung, drawn or quartered,” Cameron said in his conference speech. “There is only one real choice. The Conservatives or Labour. Me in Downing Street, or Ed Miliband in Downing Street.”

While Miliband was muddled in Manchester, Cameron was bold in Birmingham. His pledge to create three million apprenticeships on the road towards an overarching ambition of full employment, tax breaks for bottom and middle earners and his passionate rebuttal of the charge that he couldn’t be trusted with the NHS combined to steal Labour’s thunder.

Nor did his big-hitting warm-up acts, themselves tipped as potential Tory leaders, overshadow him. In what must go down as a show of loyalty to Cameron, the Mayor of London chose to do his Bonkers Boris turn and natter to a house brick. As impressive as she was, Theresa May’s plan for beefed-up security measures posed more questions than they answered, not least whether they would ever make it through the Commons.

Added to that mix is the decisive action on Iraq, with a ComRes poll showing that the Prime Minister is trusted by 45 per cent of the public to make the right calls on tackling the threat posed by Islamic State militants, compared with just 28 per cent for Ed Miliband. The Government’s humiliating Commons defeat in August last year over UK intervention in Syria appears to have been forgotten.

Although Conservative ministers are rightly anxious that David Cameron should not be seen to be exploiting the crisis to further his claims for a second term, they will be pleased that his handling of it serves to further underline the stark choice between him and Ed Miliband next May.

What the Labour and Tory party conferences also made abundantly clear is that the biggest threat to Conservative hopes no longer comes from the left but through the fracturing of the right-wing vote.

Lynton Crosby had advised David Cameron not to mention the NHS in his conference speech for the simple reason that he does not feel the Conservatives can win on it. A U-turn on that strategy saw the Prime Minister pledge to ring-fence the NHS budget in a direct response to Labour’s promise the week before to spend an extra £2.5bn on it.

But there was another area of weakness that David Cameron was also forced to touch upon. “On May 7 you could go to bed with Nigel Farage and wake up with Ed Miliband,” he warned. This served to reinforce the mantra that a vote for Ukip really means a vote for Labour, one that will be repeated often over the next seven months in order to ingrain it in the public’s consciousness. Farage equals Miliband and that equals risk at a time when Britain is finally turning a corner.

Ukip and the threat of more defections will continue be a concern at Tory HQ, starting with Thursday’s by-election in Clacton. But for now they will be content in the knowledge that the party and its figurehead are in far better shape than might have been expected.

David Cameron has come through one of the most testing periods of his premiership. The narrower than expected No vote in the Scottish referendum (which he described as “the most nerve-wracking week of my life”) was a win nonetheless. His call for intervention in Iraq was perfectly timed and has bolstered his approval ratings. It has taken four years, but he finally has the air of a Prime Minister with a clear vision and the leadership qualities required to see it realised.

And the good news is that if David Miliband does end up riding to Labour’s rescue by replacing his blundering brother as leader, it won’t be until after May 2015 when the race to Downing Street will already have been run.