Tucked high up on the walls of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, like a collar stud, a plaque commemorates the laying of the foundation stone by Tony Blair, early in the first of his three terms as prime minister.
On the fifth floor, in the President’s Lounge of the Welsh Rugby Union, Ed Miliband is making a try to become the first Labour Party leader since Blair to win a general election. Surrounded by framed black-and-white photographs of massive men surging across the line or celebrating victory, the leader of the Opposition, taller and more commanding than he looks on parliamentary TV, stands at a lectern in front of red screens printed with the words: People’s Question Time.
Sitting between shelves heavy with rugby balls and champagne bottles, a representative selection of the Welsh people (supporters, sceptics, Tories) ask him about tax avoidance, dangerous dogs, Islamist terrorism, benefits cuts (all of which he is anti) and TV debates (pro). Every interrogator gets a “Good question” or “Thanks for asking that”, a tactic of flattery that is never tested, on this occasion, by any unfriendly questions about beating his brother David to the Labour leadership or polls showing doubts about Ed’s qualities.
One Labour voter refers to David Cameron’s “caricature of you for five years”, invoking the hapless combination of Mr Bean and Wallace from Wallace and Gromit that is the Conservatives’ preferred version of Miliband. And certainly, in this setting, he comes across as emotionally and intellectually intelligent and combative, much as he subsequently would on Channel 4’s Cameron & Miliband Live.
A stand-out aspect of Miliband’s public style is how carefully he monitors his comments. “The Tories are sitting on – well, not literally sitting on…” he starts one answer in Cardiff. Expressing relief that the “zombie Parliament” (so-called because the Coalition has not produced enough legislation to fill the House of Commons schedule) will soon be dead, he hastily corrects himself: “Er, you can’t kill a zombie, can you?”
This verbal self-scrutiny is probably because he knows that so many in the media are crouched around like slip fielders waiting for a mistake. If Blair came to the Millennium Stadium to put down a stone, Miliband’s aim was to avoid dropping a brick, following a succession of media fusses including a public struggle to eat a bacon sandwich, and the inadvertent revelation during a TV interview that the Miliband house has two kitchens.
As a result, Team Ed is a little twitchy about interviewers, seemingly fearful that the first enquiry will be: “Have you ever momentarily forgotten which kitchen you were in while scarfing a breakfast sarnie?”
As is common in top-level politics, Miliband uses travel time for interviews, and Radio Times has been allocated the return leg of his Paddington–Cardiff ticket. I find the Labour leader in a window seat at the end of a standard- class compartment.
Political fiction is currently flourishing on television: the once unchallenged American superpower of The West Wing now rivalled by The Thick of It, Borgen, Veep and the remake of House of Cards. So is the leader of the Opposition addicted to any or all of these?
“None of them. Well, The West Wing yes, because it’s great fantasy politics, but The Thick of It no because it’s too much like reality. But when I watched The West Wing, it was before I was Labour leader and probably before I was a cabinet minister. And now… well, you probably wouldn’t rush home from a day of journalism to watch a show about journalists.”