LONDON — David Cameron had not intended to break a sweat.
Britain’s Prime Minister, a confident man who loves to “chillax,” strode into this year’s election campaign safe in the knowledge that his rival for Downing Street was a total nerd with virtually no chance of reversing approval ratings that were bleak on a historic scale.
And yet, ten days from the election, there was Cameron: suit jacket off, voice raised, cheeks flushed pink, and, yes, wiping sweat from his brow. He was going to have to fight to save his job. “If I’m getting lively about it, it’s because I feel bloody lively about it,” he said. “I’m pumped up!”
This was not part of his plan. The Conservative Party’s campaign strategy was simple: keep reminding the electorate that while they might not love David Cameron they did not want to wake up on May 8 to discover that wimpy, awkward Ed Miliband was in charge of the country’s fragile economic recovery.
Cameron’s cadre of election advisers, led by combative Australian Linton Crosby, were right to think their Labour opponent would continue to be lampooned in the British newspapers; that Cameron would be seen as the better statesman and a more trustworthy guardian of the economy. The parties may have been locked in a dead heat in the polls, but the advisers insisted that a late swing to the incumbent Conservatives would move Cameron into the lead in the final stretch.
Twenty-four hours before Election Day, we’re still waiting for that swing. The two parties are still locked within a point of each other in the polls and it looks almost impossible for Cameron to win a majority. What the Tory advisors did not imagine was the revenge of the nerds.
Some of those who have worked most closely with Miliband as he rose from a back-office Harry Potter look-a-like at the Treasury to the leader of the Labour Party, have told The Daily Beast that he’s always been a lot tougher than people expected.
The scrutiny from across the political spectrum and the mainstream media has been the most savage in a quarter of a century. The earnest but uninspiring Miliband has been mocked, caricatured and insulted over his courage, his looks, and even the way he eats a bacon sandwich.
When his ability to do the PM’s job was questioned by the notoriously hostile interviewer Jeremy Paxman, Miliband didn’t hesitate. “Am I tough enough? Hell, yes,” he said.
The public was shocked by his punchy response. Not so, his former colleagues. “Ed has always been principled, honest and resilient. Voters are now getting the chance to see his true character,” a former No. 10 advisor told The Daily Beast. “Those of us who worked with him knew his focus would never waver no matter what was thrown at him—a hugely important quality for a future prime minister.”
Miliband’s first flash of ruthlessness in public came when he challenged and defeated his older brother, who had been the clear favorite to become the next Labour leader. Hillary Clinton was among millions shocked by that result; she once told Vogue magazine that she had a “big crush” on David Miliband, who had been British foreign secretary during her first two years at the State Department.
Officials who worked with Ed Miliband when he was a minister in the last Labour government said he had demonstrated the same ruthless streak by disposing of staff who might challenge his decisions: “He would go so far as to remove, or try to remove, officials who did not agree with him, even though U.K. officials are supposed to be independent, objective and impartial,” a source said.
As Miliband withstood the media onslaught, a group of teenagers responded to the “bullying” of the British newspapers by launching what they called “Milifandom;” a kind of online group hug that included complements, loving messages and, most of all, adoring photoshops.
Milifandom may just be a joke that got out of hand but it came to symbolize the voters’ reluctance to be led by the British media. The Telegraph, The Times, The Sun, The Economist, The Financial Times, and even the left-wing Independent newspaper, have all endorsed a Conservative-led government—and yet the polls remain stubbornly tied.
There’s a real chance that Miliband, whose personal approval rating was -55 six months ago, could be Britain’s next prime minister. In part, that's because the reality could never be as hapless as the caricatures suggested; expectations were so low it was easy for him to exceed them.
To move into No. 10 he would almost certainly need the support of the Scottish National Party and perhaps the Liberal Democrats but that would still constitute a remarkable turn-around so soon after Labour was booted out following 13 years in power.
Some Labour MPs told The Daily Beast a few weeks ago that they expected Miliband to harness this newly revealed toughness in office to grow into a left-wing Margaret Thatcher.
Professor Tim Bale, author of Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband, said it was obvious that, like Thatcher, Miliband had a genuine ideological drive to alter the economic system. “It’s a rejection of the turbo-charged Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism that we see in America in favor of a move to a more managed style of capitalism that we see work very well in Germany,” he said.
After studying his time as Labour leader, Bale concludes that Miliband is split between “the two Eds,” half driven by ideology, half by pragmatism. Everyone agrees that he is willing to overturn the consensus; he took on Rupert Murdoch and challenged the utility companies on pricing when most advisers cautioned that the risk was too great.
“It comes back to his fundamental personality—he does occasionally reject common wisdom and reject common sense. And if he feels that, he will go for it in a way that I think is quite courageous,” said Bale.
Others would describe it as impetuous or populist.
“In my experience, he seemed more concerned with how his policies would play out politically and with the electorate than with the evidence and analysis,” said an official who worked with him in government. “He does not have Margaret Thatcher’s conviction, decisiveness, energy, resilience and attention to the hard slog of getting things done.”
He may be no match for Thatcher, but Cameron is finding Miliband to be a quite unexpected challenge.