7 Nov 2014

Is the spotlight fading on Ed Miliband’s leadership?

Labour appears to have sleepwalked into a leadership crisis. But how likely are claims of a new leader to replace him before the 2015 general election? And who might replace him?

Is Ed Miliband on borrowed time? Can he survive the weekend? Until Christmas? Until next year’s election? In the last 72 hours Labour has been plunged into panic with talk of poisonous briefings and even claims that a letter is circulating calling for Mr Miliband to stand aside.

But why now? What exactly is troubling the party that was not doing so six months ago? And is there anything in any of this beyond feverish speculation?

Well, yes and no. First, the speculation. As of yet no such “letter” has been seen. No MP has come out on the record in favour of ousting their leader. Nor are any of the recent criticisms of his leadership particularly new. Mr Miliband has long suffered an image problem.

There have been flashes of policy inspiration, but he has struggled to broaden his appeal beyond core Labour voters. Some say the cost-of-living-crisis is not permeating with quite the policy punch he would hope.

Acute problems

What has changed for Mr Miliband recently is the acuteness of his problems. Consider the above against the more pressing backdrop of a collapse in his personal poll ratings, the rise of the SNP threatening to scorch 20 of Labour’s 41 Scottish seats (crucial for a 2015 victory). Add the Greens garnering greater support – not to mention Ukip broadening its appeal among the working class.

Suddenly the picture changes. Problems that were once platitudes now have a crushing urgency to be resolved.

Indeed, by this analysis Labour is not just drifting. It is failing to pre-empt contemporary political threats – and, thanks to new, credible alternatives, heading to the humiliation of defeat where victory once seemed likely. That is a particularly rude awakening for MPs, many of whom feel the downward trajectory is difficult to curtail at this late stage.

Add that to the New Statesman magazine appearing to withdraw its once-default support for Mr Miliband, and it soon becomes clear why the mood inside Labour HQ has plummeted.

Time for a change?

But could this really result in a change of leader before the election? The prospect is not impossible but it is still difficult to imagine. Firstly, Labour’s historical record in ousting a leader is nothing short of abysmal. Party rules mean that a vote of no-confidence can only be marshalled during the party’s annual conference – which was six weeks ago.

For the moment, curmudgeonly backbenchers seem happier complaining off-the-record about their leader than putting their head above the parapet and pitching an alternative.

And that’s hardly surprising. Labour’s MP’s are not known to be forward about coming forward. One only need remember 2009 during Gordon Brown’s premiership which saw former pensions secretary James Purnell’s dramatic resignation, in which he called for the then prime minister to stand aside “to give Labour a fighting chance of winning the next election”. It was followed in 2010 by simultaneous resignations by Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon.

But neither of these were enough to move Mr Brown, who went on to lose the election himself five months later.

Exit unlikely

Mr Miliband appears just as resilient. The prospect of him grabbing his coat and exiting stage left is unlikely. Three MPs are understood to have told Dave Watts, chairman of the parliamentary Labour party that Mr Miliband should stand down. But it will need far more than that – as well as a clear contingency plan – for any chance of a leadership shift.

Finally, the perennial question that hampers any immediate prospect of change. Who exactly would replace him? Who could actually do a better job? And who could stave off the prospect of a party implosion that would almost inevitably follow?

With no clear contender to challenge Mr Miliband, talk of a change of leader remains just that.

Here are five potential successors.

Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham

The shadow health secretary is currently the leading candidate. His performances at the last Labour conference were impressive, where Mr Miliband’s were not. His dogged campaigning on the Hillsborough tragedy has won admiration across parliament. His working class roots are of contrast to Mr Miliband who the New Statesman described as an “old-style Hampstead socialist”.

On talk of a leadership challenge, he has said: “The party is united behind Ed’s leadership and we are confident he will be the next prime minister.”

Yvette Cooper

One of the more accomplished performers, who has been impressive head-to-head against Home Secretary Theresa May.

The shadow home secretary would have the support of her husband, Ed Balls. But that could also be to her detriment. Many believe Balls is too closely linked to the Brown and Miliband era.

Of talk of a leadership challenge, Ms Cooper’s spokesman said: “The spreading of lies like this only damages the Labour party and should be seen as exactly what it is – complete and utter garbage.”

Chuka Umunna

He is already tipped as a future Labour leader but an elevation to the top post may seem premature for the 36-year-old. Instead the shadow business secretary called on the party to focus on “communities, rather than the distracting nonsense by some in the Westminster bubble”.

He wrote in a blog on Friday: “The simple fact is that because of Ed Miliband’s leadership we are now within touching distance of being what many thought impossible four years ago: a one-term opposition.”

Rachel Reeves

The shadow welfare secretary has had a meteoric rise entering the shadow cabinet 18 months after election despite being described by the editor of BBC Newsnight as “boring snoring”. A former UK junior chess champion and Bank of England economist is among a number of Labour MPs who have been tipped for leadership positions but whose time may not be yet.

She wrote on Twitter: “A Labour government will make a huge difference to the lives of millions of people. But we’ll only get one if we stay united behind Ed Miliband”.

Alan Johnson

The former postman who served as home secretary under Gordon Brown, appears to value his private life and has all but ruled himself out last month when he said he had “no appetite for being on the frontbench” let alone a potential prime minister which he described as a “god-awful job”.