Take the Labour Party under Ed Miliband. His advisers have deluded themselves into thinking that their leader has had a decent summer and autumn.
In some respects, they have a point. Ed Miliband showed some mettle over the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in July, and appeared at least in touch with ordinary people when he went on a series of walkabouts after the riots in August.
Last week, his team could content themselves with a reasonable speech at the Labour conference, which began to set out Labour’s moral high ground on big business and the banks. Ed’s decisive move in picking his own Shadow Cabinet (rather than letting Labour MPs do it) is also wise, if long overdue. So far so good.
But there the positive spin on Ed Miliband’s first year as Labour leader surely comes to a juddering halt. At no point has Ed either looked or acted like a confident, modern political leader. Instead, he’s come across to the voters as a frightened rabbit caught in the glare of the headlights.
One essential requirement of political leadership is that the person in charge should look, and more importantly, act, the part. The contrast with David Cameron couldn’t be starker: for all his faults, the Prime Minister both looks and sounds like a confident head of a political party, and indeed a statesmanlike leader of the country.
Part of the reason why Ed looked so dumbstruck on becoming leader was that he had spent so much time plotting how best to defeat his elder brother David, that he forgot about formulating a proper strategy after the leadership contest – with the result that his first year in charge has been largely a case of treading water.
Even more seriously, Ed Miliband has failed to achieve what political advisers call “traction” with the public. That is putting it mildly. Only one in four voters think Ed will be Prime Minister. And that’s the kindest piece of polling evidence. For whatever reason, the public, especially women, find Ed “creepy” and “a bit weird”. Having started out with a poor leadership rating, I doubt very much whether that can be turned around.
There are stark parallels with Iain Duncan Smith’s miserable and short-lived experience as Conservative party leader from 2001 to 2003. In his last year in charge, only 18 per cent of voters perceived IDS as Prime Ministerial material, while a miserable one in seven saw him as a strong leader.
Both IDS and Ed are uncannily like the tragic character of Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army: men born to be corporals, but finding themselves over-promoted to the rank of captain. (Ironically, IDS held a commission in the army in the 1970s).
Neither political leader has proved adept at delivering barnstorming speeches to their respective party conferences. While Ed’s speech last week was reasonable, it wasn’t well delivered. He paused in the wrong places. Many of the passages were flat and, quite frankly, boring.
At least Ed can content himself that he isn’t quite as bad as his Tory counterpart. I still recall hiding behind the sofa during IDS’s “Quiet Man” speech of 2002, and biting my nails a year later with the truly terrible sequel – “the Quiet Man is turning up the volume”.
Like IDS, Ed is regularly worsted by the sitting Prime Minister during their weekly jousts in the House of Commons, though Ed can’t really match the derision from MPs at IDS’s croaky voice, which earned him the nickname of “Iain Duncan Cough”.
The comparisons don’t end there. Both Ed and IDS only secured the backing of about one third of their MPs in their respective leadership contests, meaning that from day one, they were vulnerable to sniping from the remaining two-thirds.
There is one crumb of comfort, however, that Ed Miliband can draw from the IDS case. In the eight years since his political defenestration, IDS has rehabilitated his political image, and as Work and Pensions Secretary has recently been voted as the best-performing Coalition minister by Tory supporters.
But while the Tories have nearly always proved brutal in getting rid of their unpopular leaders (including Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and IDS), Labour – obsessed with a rulebook mentality and a stronger sense of misplaced loyalty – tend to cling onto their underperforming leaders (such as Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock).
So, I confidently predict that the sniping from Ed Miliband’s own side will grow in the years ahead, the right-wing media will deride him for his equivocal stance on public sector strikes, and big business will increasingly baulk at his plans to soak the rich.
But for all the battering that “Red Ed” will receive, Labour won’t get rid of their lame duck leader: they never do.