Speaking up for business

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ONLY a few weeks ago, Ed Miliband was on the ropes, down and on the way out, with the only question being who would replace him as Labour leader. That he has managed since then to mount a small, but significant, recovery is largely down to two factors.

First, he has embraced reality and admitted that Labour cannot promise to reverse any of the Government’s cuts. And second, David Cameron’s vacillation over bankers’ bonuses has given Mr Miliband the opportunity to look strong and decisive on an issue which resonates deeply with the public.

Thus it was that, in Sheffield last night, the Labour leader launched another fierce attack on the bonus culture, pointing out that not only is it good for business that financial irresponsibility is contained, it is also good for society as a whole that unearned rewards are curtailed, whether they come from the boardroom or the benefits office.

With public antipathy towards the bonus culture soaring, Mr Miliband is clearly happy to ride the wave. He cannot afford, however, to be too sanguine.

Mr Cameron may have mishandled the recent row over the bonus for Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Stephen Hester. However, if the last Labour government had handled Mr Hester’s appointment correctly – by ensuring that no bonus was payable until RBS was returned to private hands – the row would never have arisen in the first place.

Similarly, while Labour’s new tone of financial responsibility is a welcome one, its contradictions are there for all to see. How, for example, can Mr Miliband criticise the coalition Government’s cuts when he accepts that they are inevitable? And how can he argue for a new spirit of fairness and responsibility in the benefits system while Labour continues to oppose the very measures that will bring this about?

The voters are not fools. They might respond warmly to anyone indulging in a spot of banker-bashing, but they can still detect glaring inconsistency and they are still in no doubt that much of the responsibility for the financial crisis lies with the Labour government of which Mr Miliband was a key member. The Leader of the Opposition may be in a safer position than at the end of last year. But that is not saying very much.