Writing for ShortList following a three-day tour in Afghanistan, Tom Bradby, ITV News’s political editor, gets an inside view on the man eyeing up No 10.
His enemies liken him to the hapless protagonist of Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit series, and it is indisputably true that the new leader of the opposition is often to be found with a look of mild surprise upon his face. At what, it is not clear. At the fact that he has been elevated to the post, perhaps, or the possibility that he might one day be given the most powerful job in the land – or maybe just at the way in which he beat his older, apparently more qualified, brother to the job they’d both always wanted.
But the insults aside, what isn’t in doubt is that Ed Miliband remains a largely ambiguous prospect to the public at large, famous only for ‘doing in’ his older sibling. He’s a bit of a geek, say his enemies, an Islington do-gooder who simply doesn’t have what it takes to make it to the very top.
But is any of that fair? Indeed, who is Ed Miliband? What’s he really like? Are we — would we, could we — ever consider giving him the keys to No 10? There is only one way to find out, of course, and that is to spend some time on the inside track.
THE BEST BROTHER?
So, a few weeks ago, I packed my bags and flew out to Afghanistan for an exclusive three-day journey around this still deeply troubled country, the express purpose of which was to paint a portrait for our viewers of the man who seeks to rule them. I went on a similar trip with David Cameron six years ago (infamously hugging huskies, if you recall) and this was equally useful in allowing me to get a handle on another man who wants to lead us.
The first thing to say is that he is a thoroughly affable guy, and that three days in his company is no hardship at all. He is thoughtful, curious and interested in the people and places around him. It was a trip in which I learned a lot, both about him personally and about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
We flew into Camp Bastion, Britain’s main military base, in the dead of night and three paces in the desert sand were enough to remind us that we had entered a major theatre of war. Last time I was here, Bastion was a couple of Portakabins and a landing strip. It is now the bustling home to thousands of troops and the helicopter rotors whir all day and all night.
It’s not a place to get much sleep, especially in a dormitory full of snoring men. And we didn’t. Ed was staying next door, but he acknowledged to me the next morning that he also sometimes has a tendency to snore a little (perhaps no surprise, given his adenoidal twang).
If so, his partner Justine does not appear to mind. She texted to say that she and the children were missing him and it is clear that the feeling is mutual. He is finding the time away from home which the job demands testing.
We had already chewed over some domestic politics on the journey out. He is confident that he is gradually getting over a few early blips and he thinks Cameron’s weakness is his arrogance. Alan Johnson’s departure was a shock and he said that he gave the shadow chancellor’s job to Ed Balls because he’s the best qualified candidate, although it was pretty clear he thinks that a decision not to appoint Mr Balls might have been more trouble than it was worth. Ed Balls knows the damage the Blair/Brown split caused, he explained, and that, “If we don’t hang together, we will all hang separately.”
But he mentioned quite a few times that “Ed knows he lost a leadership election”, which suggested to me he might not be quite as confident of his new sidekick’s loyalty as he makes out.
We also tackled, of course, the conflict with his big brother. It was clear that the contest was agony and their relationship suffered accordingly. He said it is all “fine” now, though I had my doubts about this, too, since he looked pained every time I raised the subject. Crucially, though, he has no regrets. Not having a go would have eaten away at him, he said. “It was the right thing for me,” he insisted more than once.
The next morning we rose early for breakfast with the troops in the canteen. One soldier later told me Ed’s questions on issues such as the presence of Naval personnel were way off the ball (“How out of touch can you get?”), but he seemed pretty engaged to me.
He’s good at one-on-one contact and oozes a natural easy-going friendliness, though he is better in smaller groups. But he does sometimes have trouble projecting strength and leadership.
After breakfast, we loaded into the back of a Chinook and swooped low across the barren desert countryside to the forward operating base at Shawquat. I was not supposed to be admitted to the confidential briefing here, but Ed insisted and pretty quickly got his way — the one thing you have going for you in opposition is that no one can ever quite rule out the possibility that you might one day be their boss — so we all filed in to hear a vivid account of the current state of play in the notorious Nad-e Ali district in Helmand Province.
The local commander was an impressive Ulsterman and it was clear that he believed that the huge influx of US troops had helped them turn a corner. They were, he said, gradually stripping out the middle level of Taliban commanders and — perhaps — encouraging the remainder to think about reaching a settlement.
Ed listened attentively, flanked by his putative foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, and defence secretary, Scottish hardman Jim Murphy – two of the smarter minds in modern politics. Alexander and Murphy were allies of his brother David and if you forced me to guess, I’d say their jury is still out on whether the brother they didn’t pick is the better choice. But they have swung in behind him and they form a focused trio. The questioning on exactly what progress was really being made and the true extent to which the Taliban might have been degraded was pretty direct.
There were security officers too, but they prefer us not to talk too much about the exact nature of their deployment. What I can say is that by the time we got to our next destination, a local training school for the Afghan police, they were all over us like a rash. I counted nine in all, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons (some were from the security group Controlled Risks). I also noticed that the local Afghan bodyguards, here to mind the governor of the province, had the magazines removed from their AK-47s, so the trust that is supposed to be being built on the road to the handover in 2015 clearly has its limits.
The atmosphere was edgy, but Miliband sailed on regardless. Unlike his predecessor as leader of the Labour Party, he is very rarely grumpy. He is an even-tempered fellow; always chipper, always on form. This is a blessed relief to many of the people around him who once worked for Gordon Brown, but whether they will come to regret the absence of a harder edge is a matter for debate.
By the time we winged our way back to Bastion, news had filtered through of a bomb attack in Kabul. The picture was murky and it looked for a while as if the rest of the trip would be cancelled. It would be wrong to say there was a sense of mourning in our tent, since no one ever said, “He who is tired of Kabul, is tired of life.” But tempted as he was by the prospect of more time with his kids, Ed had enough nous to know that an early return home would have risked bad headlines. We held on and eventually clearance came through.
An hour later we hit the ground in Kabul and listened to a security brief from our drivers on the ride into the Green Zone, the international heart of the city, which was just as alarming as ever: “Follow instructions at all times. If we are hit, do not leave the vehicle.” A British general who travelled out with us was shoved in the middle of the car just in case a potential suicide bomber spotted his uniform, while Jim Murphy and I sat either side of him.
It was an unsettling journey, but it didn’t last long and 10 minutes later we were easing ourselves into the Ambassador’s comfortable leather sofas with a gin and tonic in hand.
Dinner was a round-table affair, with an interesting discussion on President Karzai’s standing and prospects amid a strongly expressed desire from the politicians for a settlement to be reached with the Taliban soon — the trouble with which, of course, is that they have been talking like this for years amid few discernible signs of progress.
As we tucked into smoked salmon, lamb and reasonable Italian chianti, served by Afghan waiters in latex gloves, the deputy ambassador got into a lively debate with the general on exactly what the government’s policy should be. Everyone wants a political settlement with the Taliban before 2015, but what do we do if they try to sit Western forces out? Nobody really seems to have an answer and Ed Miliband, at least, earnestly seeks one. After 2015, it might be his problem.
The following day involved more of the same, including meetings with General Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, and President Karzai. There was no doubt the red carpet was rolled out for Miliband, since he got to see pretty much everyone who mattered.
But what would Ed be like if he ever did make it to No 10 and was out in the world making decisions on questions of life and death in Afghanistan and everywhere else? You don’t have to look far at Westminster to find the sceptics. Indeed, I upset Labour staffers after his first conference speech by suggesting that the reaction of some of the delegates on the floor was, ‘Houston, we might have a problem.’
For what it is worth, I would say after this trip that he has three characteristics very important in a prime minister: he is calm, he is intelligent, and he is considered. In a job where the pressure is intense and relentless these are qualities that are not in any way to be underestimated.
Whether he yet projects sufficient strength and resolve to be certain of being considered worthy is a little less clear. But as he said more than once on this trip, he has only just got started. Project No 10 is a work in progress. He is improving steadily. And from what I saw, the Tories would be foolish to write him off just yet.