Miliband senses a government losing its grip

Labour leader Ed Miliband going to a lunch full of political journalists in January would have been like chucking a rump steak into a gaggle of vultures. But the mood of politics has changed.

The Ed Miliband that arrived at a Press Gallery lunch on Thursday was different to the one seen back then. He was natural, confident and not scared to put it about.

'I asked somebody recently what I should expect from the Press Gallery lunch and they said to me it's the White House Correspondents' Dinner for ugly people,' he quipped opening his speech.

Parliament's journalists laughed. They even laughed when he said he did not mind if News International wanted him to lose the next election. After all, he wanted them to go to jail.

For a politician to say that to reporters whose colleagues were at that moment being questioned at a central London police station was bold.

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Previously he had claimed the 'era of Blair and Brown' was over, but on the day of the lunch he appeared in the papers with Tony Blair, having offered the Labour heavyweight his first job in UK politics since leaving Number 10.

Then he said this about his meeting with former political prisoner and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi: 'It was me and Aung San Suu Kyi in a room together. Years under a brutal dictatorship, oppressed day and night, and then she said to me 'that's enough about your time with Gordon'.'

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The rest of his talk was about how the country was crying out for a hopeful ideology at a time when Britain's institutions were failing – the next big story, he said, would be the failure of pension providers and the suffering of people ripped off by unexpected charges on their schemes.

It used to be David Cameron who foresaw the next big scandal. Not long ago he suggested it would be about lobbyists' influence over political parties. He was right, though unfortunately the party implicated was his own in the so called 'cash for access' affair.

However, the point is that this was a boisterous Ed Miliband making a tentative move to position himself in the political centre ground; and in politics there is really only room for one party in the middle.

If the Labour leader sees a space there, it is because he thinks it is being vacated by the government; and he is not the only one.

The prime minister's troubles, both practical and ideological, were very publicly highlighted by the furore over Lords reform this week.

Practically speaking, Mr Cameron is looking ever more like a man who cannot control his party and as a result, cannot pass legislation. In pushing Lords reform, a key Liberal Democrat policy, the coalition had planned to pass a 'programme motion'.

This would have limited the amount of time debate lasted before a final vote took place. Without it, deliberations would be open-ended allowing opponents to talk until time allowed to pass the legislation ran out.

But such was opposition to the programme motion from his own MPs that Mr Cameron feared he would lose a vote on it and so he withdrew it. When it came to a vote to actually progress the legislation, Tory whips figured not so many of their own MPs would dare rebel. They were wrong.

Excluding ministers, only 80 Tories voted for Lords reform, whereas 91 opposed it. The vote was only won because it had the backing of Labour MPs.

One Tory backbencher told me this week that as the party went to vote the atmosphere was 'electric'; with rebels and whips both haranguing Conservatives to the last second to vote their way.

Mr Cameron was so furious at the way some of his own MPs stood against him that he was seen giving one rebel ring-leader a public dressing down; that is the chief whip's job, something below the prime minister.

But while legislative paralysis is dangerously close for Mr Cameron, the problem is underpinned by a deeper ideological issue. A large section of his party has had enough of coalition.

At the heart of that section is the Conservative right wing, but it is by no means limited to it. Meanwhile the right-wingers driving the rebellion are prepared to go to great lengths.

A Labour shadow minister told me this week that he was approached by two renowned Tory rebel MPs, Peter Bone and Douglas Carswell, and offered help on how to pen a parliamentary motion to cause most trouble for Mr Cameron.

'They want out of the coalition. They want an election and if they lose then opposition is better than government with us,' a senior Lib Dem told me yesterday.

'But they are making the mistake Tony Benn made in the 80s. They think that by going further to their side of the political spectrum they will win public support; most people in Britain are moderate.'

In order to keep the coalition together, something Mr Cameron's political future depends on, the prime minister must prevent his moderate MPs from joining right-wingers who oppose him, but he must also follow the Lib Dem agenda that is pushing them away.

In the middle of that conundrum Mr Cameron's caring conservatism is yet to show it has the structural integrity to resist the pressure. For him the recess cannot come soon enough.

In an attempt to show it is on top of the growth agenda the government will announce infrastructure investment on Monday, but it will be at the party conference later this year that the prime minister will get the chance to face down rebels.

Meanwhile the conference season will also be a test for Ed Miliband. This is probably the highest point of his leadership, but while his talk of ideology might be high-minded, it hangs like a veil over the empty space where Labour policy should be.

For him the summer recess offers a chance to work out how much to say about his policy plans; then we will see if his new found boisterousness has any bite.

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