Ed Miliband feels the heat as David Cameron lobs English firecracker

Gavel-to-gavel TV coverage of party conferences disappeared more than a decade ago, as network TV recoiled at the absence of drama, but the three to four-day conferences still offer British political parties a precious and rare platform to project itself, largely on their terms.

Political conferences, especially the last before the election, matter. Ed Miliband's conference speech, for instance, was already on its 10th draft back in July. Normally a non-aggression pact applies during the conference season. The guns of other parties fall silent during their rival's event.

But not this time. By posing the question about English devolution at dawn on Friday in the wake of the Scottish referendum, David Cameron reassured his backbenchers but disconcerted Labour. Miliband's chosen agenda of the health service, squeezed living standards and jobs has consequently struggled for media space both in the run-up and opening day of the party conference.

There will be more disruptions. Cameron will stage a summit on the English question with his backbench MPs on Monday, give a speech on climate change in New York on Tuesday and on Wednesday declare Britain will join air strikes against Islamic State militants.

Labour MPs, meanwhile, admit that polls show many voters still do not know what their one nation slogan stands for, and this party conference, the last before the election, is a critical staging post to set out "Labour's plan for Britain's future" – in distinction to the Conservative's "long-term economic plan". So there is frustration amongst Labour officials that Cameron lobbed the English firecracker into its conference. Labour MPs know the party is trailing on the economy, welfare and equality, and it needs its days in the sun to show there is a post-Cameron agenda.

Miliband's big announcement of a minimum wage of £8 a week by 2020 did not lead many bulletins, and a plan to publish the full Lyons review into building 200,000 houses by 2020 had to be shelved.

Miliband tried to interpret the Scottish referendum revolt through the lens of a UK-wide revolt about living standards, but instead Cameron has tangled Labour up in knots about English votes for English laws, the McKay commission, Scottish devolution, and a constitutional convention – hardly doorstep issues, but enough to give the impression that the Tories back the English more than Labour. It throws up questions about whether Miliband could have reacted more decisively to the no vote.

The political calendar after all showed Thursday's referendum would abut Labour's conference, and officials had two different schedules ready, according to the outcome. The yes version was never committed to email since it was regarded as too sensitive.

But Labour was not prepared for Cameron to make his proposal that only English MPs vote on English issues.

Although the idea was in the Conservative election manifesto, the issue had lain fallow. A government commissioned report by Sir William McKay in March 2013 had not been given the courtesy of a response by ministers.

Miliband admitted Cameron had never mentioned this issue in their cross-party talks on the referendum, So a prearranged shadow cabinet collective call on Friday morning came up with a constitutional convention to park the issue during the conference.

But Labour's attempt to defer the conversation has been difficult, partly as Labour MPs and council leaders in England lined up to tell him he could not afford to be seen as anti-English, and needed a clearer, if not definitive, position. One shadow cabinet member, Tristram Hunt, warned: "We have to sound confident that we can win a majority in England, and are not going to rely on a Scottish bloc to get us over the line. We are right to be confident – we won a majority of seats in England in 1997, 2001 and 2005. Historically Labour has won without Scotland, and can do so again. This debate shall ensure we redouble our efforts to take the fight to middle England seats."

Miliband, eager to focus on living standards, found himself being asked 13 times by Andrew Marr whether he supported English votes for English laws, and ended up saying that he favoured English MPs scrutinising English legislation.

But shadow cabinet members genuinely think Cameron's plans are half-baked. One said: "The West Lothian question is 25 years out of date. It's not just about Scotland, but Wales, Northern Ireland, London and the great cities. It's not about two classes of MPs, but four or five."

Labour thinks it will get back on track largely though the NHS – an issue that drove voters to the Scottish National party in Scotland. A shadow cabinet member said: "The issue of the health service cuts through like a hot knife through butter."

Once centrist shadow cabinet member said: " Stories such as plans to privatise cancer services in Staffordshire, or hospitals being banned from merging by the Competition Commission might read like leftwing scare stories, but are true, and scaring voters." The issue for Labour is whether its decides to puts some cash behind its commitment to the NHS, as seems likely, or says reform will be enough to get the NHS through.

The mood of this conference has none of the confidence or dynamism of Tony Blair's in 1996, the last time Labour won from opposition, partly due to loss of trust with all parties. Dan Jarvis, the shadow justice minister, said: "The public are so fed up, so cynical with politicians – we have got a huge challenge to address that, I know the public stop listening when we speak the language of the Westminster village that is about a clipped political soundbite."

One shadow cabinet member said: "It is rare for a party to win when 25 [percentage] points behind on the economy, but there is a lot going for us – Ukip, marginal seats, boundaries, Tory division – so I think we will be the largest party, even if the Tories probably win the popular vote. The issue then is do we govern as a minority party or seek out the Liberal Democrats."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Sunday 21st September 2014 20.33 Europe/London

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