“You were the future once …”
When David Cameron famously made that remark on his first encounter with Tony Blair across the despatch box, he employed a very effective communication device. This week, Ed Miliband tried the same trick (“Mr Cameron, you were an optimist once”). It was clearly intended to have the same effect – if not a bigger one. The words “hoist” and “Cameron’s petard” must have been bandied excitedly around the new leader’s drafting table when some bright spark came up with the idea.
But it hardly registered at all. Why not? Lots of reasons, actually …
When Cameron used the phrase, he wasn’t just making a statement about Blair having his future behind him. Cameron was also planting in our minds the idea that he – David Cameron, newly elected leader of the opposition – was now our future. It was two statements rolled into one.
But not so for Miliband. The words “You were an optimist once” came after a series of attacks on the government, a government with almost five years left to run. Ed Miliband clearly isn’t optimistic about the immediate future. The double meaning simply wasn’t there.
Miliband then claimed, several times in the closing of his speech, that he (and Labour) are now the optimists in politics. In doing so, he saddled himself with a claim that can be used against him in the exchanges to come. Cameron, by contrast, had never actually claimed to be the future. He had planted the idea in our minds without ever using the phrase about himself. One of the most powerful selling techniques is to make a statement which leaves everyone thinking something warm and exciting about the product, without the salesman ever actually making the claim.
As I write this, David Miliband has just announced his withdrawal – for the time being at least – from front line politics. Famously, he was the Miliband once. If Ed doesn’t acquire some better communications advice, he might not be the Miliband for long.