By Paul Goodman
Harriet Harman was, until recently, Labour's acting leader. She's just said that the Party won't support Phil Woolas's challenge to this morning's court ruling, which ruled that the Oldham and Saddleworth seat must be re-fought, thus depriving him of his Parliamentary seat. (He has since been suspended from the party.) It is, she said, "no part of Labour's politics to try to win elections by telling lies".
When did she decide that Woolas hadn't told the truth? Was it the judges' decision today that caused the scales to fall from her eyes? Or was she convinced at some earlier stage – for example, after examining his raving election material? If so, did she have a word with Ed Miliband about the matter, after he was elected as Labour's new leader? And if she did, why did he appoint Woolas to the front bench?
I know, I know: all parties have candidates who run campaigns that are, let's say, careless with the truth. And the judges seem to have over-stepped the mark: it's voters, not the courts, that should determine who goes to Westminster. That said, Woolas was essentially done for making up stories about his opponent, and it's hard to keep m'learned friends at bay once that's happened.
If I'd said at my last election that my main opponent was in league with Islamist extremists and in the pay of an Arab Sheikh – and my team had put e-mails around saying "we need … to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him [Goodman] out … if we don't get the white vote angry he's gone" – I suspect that her lawyers would have had something to say.
Other MPs may none the less be thinking today that it could have been them in the dock, and Simon Hughes was given a gratifyingly tough time on TV earlier today about his original by-election leaflets. However, the question persists: why did Miliband risk appointing Woolas to the front bench – and as immigration spokesman, too, for heaven's sake?
Why, furthermore, did it take him some four hours to announce that Woolas would be suspended from Labour? Wasn't his team prepared for the court's decision today and, if so, why not? CCHQ have been making hay all afternoon with Miliband's slowness off the mark. He's been Labour's leader for little more than a month, and first impressions with voters may not stick. All the same, they're important.
Polling's a better guide than guesswork, but my punt would be that Miliband's made little impression at all to date. He had a plan to win his Party's leadership campaign. It's not clear that he's got one to win the country's votes. David Cameron's team grasped early how vital it is in Opposition to make the news, get noticed, grab attention, surprise voters.
Hence the bicycling and the huskies and all that – ripe for mockery, I know, but that early activity at least helped to make an impression. Maybe Miliband's secret strategy is masterly inactivity, and the hope that his excellent Commons position – 258 seats on some 29 per cent of the vote – will get him over the finishing line in five years time.
If so, it may work. Then again, it may not. In his election's aftermath, the new Labour leader was Red Ed. His team countered by putting it about that he's Steady Eddie. He looked like Unready Eddie today.