As happens from time to time Monday saw an unexpected political story emerge and sweep away all that seemed important just a few moments earlier. Before the announcement of Margaret Thatcher’s death we were all set to spend a week focused on the implementation of reforms to the Disability Living Allowance, the pension pot of disgraced banker James Crosby and the continuing fallout of the ‘Shameless Mick’ inspired welfare debate. The blanket coverage of the Iron Lady’s passing has ensured however that these issues are little more than footnotes in debates about her legacy.
Ed Miliband would be forgiven for being a little aggrieved about this sudden shift in the news agenda. As the news about Thatcher came in he was in Ipswich giving a speech to launch the Labour Party’s local election campaign. He will no doubt have been banking on healthy media coverage for his pledge to empower councils to ban payday lenders, pawnbrokers and bookmakers from town centres. The breaking news meant that Miliband and his advisers had to make a quick return to the drawing board.
There was little scope for a Labour leader to gain political advantage from the death of such a revered Conservative Prime Minister. Indeed, a misjudged statement seeking to reflect the bitterness many in his party no doubt feel towards Thatcher would have left Miliband looking spiteful and partisan in the eyes of the electorate. At the same time, an over-enthusiastic tribute could have bred resentment from the Party’s grassroots.
In his statement, Miliband hailed Thatcher as a “huge figure on the world stage” while pointing out that “the Labour Party disagreed with much of what she did”. The intention was simple: signal respect for the person but not their politics. While not quite matching the effusive rhetoric of David Cameron’s “great leader, great Prime Minister, great Briton” statement, Miliband’s words sent a signal that he can be statesmanlike in the face of ideological differences – vital in a prospective Prime Minister.
Beyond the statement, subtle signals were sent that the Labour leader actually shares some of the personal attributes many admired in Thatcher, with his close adviser Lord Wood tweeting that Thatcher “showed us that real change inspired by values was possible”.
There is little chance of Ed Miliband featuring high on the media agenda this week, but a carefully crafted statement and subtle supporting narrative have ensured that his party’s prospects are not damaged by a sudden change to the political weather.
Mark Fuller is associate director of Linstock Communications