LONDON (Reuters) - There were more than a few gasps of amazement when Ed Miliband beat his better known elder brother David to the leadership of the Labour party last September.
Many doubted the former policy wonk had the steel, vision or charm to rebuild a party struggling to come to terms with losing power after 13 years, or to mount a credible challenge among voters to the triumphant new Prime Minister David Cameron.
Yet this week, a phone-hacking scandal at the British arm of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has presented a golden opportunity for the 41-year-old to silence dissent, unite his party and generate the kind of momentum which could snowball in his - and Labour’s - favour.
“There’s no question this has been the best week for Ed Miliband since he became Labour leader. He’s landed a number of blows. He’s put forward a very clear trajectory, he took gambles and they paid off,” said Mark Wickham-Jones, a politics professor and Labour Party expert at the University of Bristol.
“He’s shown himself good at close-quarters political combat and outfoxed the government. All of those are major pluses for Ed Miliband.”
In this saga, Miliband has appeared one step ahead of Cameron. Where his normally confident rival seemed to hesitate, Miliband has been bold, daily giving the impression that the government was following his lead.
As Cameron accused Murdoch of wrongly prioritising his takeover bid for television company BSkyB above the need to sort out the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World tabloid, it was easy to forget the government had, only last week, opposed a Labour motion to discuss the TV deal.
Miliband was first to call for the head of Murdoch’s top British newspaper executive Rebekah Brooks, first to urge the abolition of the ineffectual Press Complaints Commission and first to call for a stop to the BSkyB takeover, which has now been dropped.
All were soon echoed by Cameron, who also came under fierce attack from the Labour leader for employing former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his press spokesman. Coulson, who had quit the paper in 2007 despite denying knowledge of phone-hacking, resigned as Cameron’s aide earlier this year.
In all this, Miliband has shown some of the tactical ruthlessness which helped him defeat his older brother last year - an edge that has been missing for much of his time in charge since.
“He’s handled it well. He’s been at the forefront of public opinion - people want their voice heard in parliament,” said Labour MP Simon Danczuk, who had supported David Miliband in the party’s leadership battle.
“Ed’s stood up there and provided leadership - more of that energetic leadership is exactly what we need. If he carries on in that vein, I think the public will take a shine to him.”
For much of this year, Miliband has appeared out of his depth, awkward when talking to the media and often struggling to keep up with the more confident Cameron in their weekly parliament jousts.
The fallout from the bitter sibling fight for the Labour crown seemed to haunt the younger Miliband. Mischievous rumours of a leadership challenge from David or Labour’s pugnacious economics spokesman Ed Balls surfaced, and the media appeared more interested in the adenoidal tone of his speeches rather than their content.
His decision to postpone taking any firm stance on policy - on what he and Labour would stand for at the next election in 2015 - until a wide-ranging review was completed was seen as evasive by some critics, and gave commentators leave to focus on his personality and mannerisms.
“There are still questions marks over his leadership and there are still issues about Labour’s narrative on the economy,” Wickham-Jones said. “We still don’t have much of an Ed Miliband vision.”
“In some ways it’s unfair to raise those because it’s still early days — but he’s got to start to put some flesh on the bones. What he has to try and do in the next two months is begin that process of articulating an agenda for Labour and his leadership.”
In that sense, little may have changed for Miliband. Once the Murdoch high drama subsides, he may still be faced with the same scepticism.
“Elections aren’t won on these issues,” Danczuk said. “We as a party have to develop that vision. We need a strong identity that the public can identify with. It’s still early days but we need to develop that.”
Labour has struggled to score points on the government’s economic strategy of austerity, even when growth has all but dried up. The party has also found it hard to capitalise on numerous policy u-turns from ministers on areas such as health reform and public anger over some of the austerity measures.
Miliband, the son of a Marxist academic, even opposed strikes by civil servants over pension reform - a stance designed to appeal to middle ground voters but one that put Labour at odds with its traditional supporters and paymaster.
“I have my doubts whether it is a ‘Miliband moment’,” said Justin Fisher, a politics professor at London’s Brunel University. “He needs to sustain momentum and there are two things that make that difficult for him, one of which is the summer (holiday break).”
“Secondly, whether or not there are any issues upon which he can really attack the government effectively. We haven’t seen the evidence yet that he can do that. It has been a good week for him, but it’s a notable good week because there haven’t been very many of them.”
Additional reporting by Tim Castle, Editing by Mark Trevelyan