Ed Miliband is outperforming Margaret Thatcher as a political leader, a senior Labour frontbencher boldly claims today, as the party prepares a fresh offensive to start a "crucial year" for his beleaguered leadership.
After a week punctuated by misfiring gurus, frontbenchers and Twitter accounts, Mr Miliband's shadow cabinet colleagues have rallied round, determined to give him one more chance to prove he can defy the history books and return Labour to power after just one parliamentary term in opposition.
Stephen Twigg, the shadow Education Secretary, insists his leader is "setting the pace and is on the right track". Writing for The Independent on Sunday, he suggests Mr Miliband is outpacing Mrs Thatcher, whose rise to power is charted in the new film The Iron Lady. In Mrs Thatcher's first 15 months as Tory leader, she enjoyed an average poll lead over Labour of just under 1 per cent, he says. By comparison, Mr Miliband has been almost four points ahead of the Tories since becoming leader of the opposition in September 2010. Mr Twigg adds: "However much I disagreed with some of what Margaret Thatcher did in office, there is no doubt that she did not retreat at the first whiff of grapeshot. Ed Miliband has shown he too is ahead of the curve."
The comparison comes as another frontbencher, the shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie, warned: "This is a crucial year for us." Senior Labour figures are privately split on the party's economic approach, with Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, determined to focus on the failings of the Government's strategy, while others have urged emphasis on where Labour would make cuts.
Jim Murphy, the shadow Defence Secretary, provoked a storm last week: his claim that Labour needed to show "credibility" on cuts, and that he would accept £5bn of the Government's military savings, was seen as a sign of dissent. Publicly, both Mr Miliband and Mr Balls support the move, although party insiders have told The Independent on Sunday that they fear such honesty could play into the Tories' hands by prompting demands for Labour to spell out all the cuts it would make.
However, Maria Eagle, the shadow Transport Secretary, today joins Mr Murphy in saying Labour must be "much clearer" about where it would cut. "Our credibility in opposing government policies that are adding to the cost of living crisis hitting households, such as spiralling rail and bus fares, requires us to say how we would bring the deficit down. That means we must be much clearer about the cuts that we do support, such as the nearly £2bn axed from the roads budget, the £1bn taken out of Crossrail and the cull of transport quangos."
Mr Miliband aims to use a speech on Tuesday to demonstrate he has the "real steel and grit" to succeed. He will sketch out how Labour can pursue social mobility in straitened times. "I have a very clear plan and I have set out very clear themes," he told The Guardian yesterday, referring to the squeezed middle, the next generation and responsibility at the top and bottom of society. Mr Balls will also give a speech this week, fleshing out Labour's economic approach, and Chuka Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, will set out tests for the coalition on reining in excessive executive pay.
Mr Umunna yesterday set out a list of proposals on high pay, "laying down the gauntlet" to the Government. These include improving transparency by simplifying salary packages, publishing a league table of how much more bosses earn than employees and forcing investors to disclose how they vote on remuneration packages. He dismissed speculation over Mr Miliband's leadership as "Westminster tittle-tattle".
As the economic picture appears gloomier, voters are putting more trust in the coalition. A poll last week showed Mr Cameron, George Osborne and even Nick Clegg were more trusted to see the country through the economic stagnation than Mr Miliband or Mr Balls.
Some senior Labour figures are tiring of the Shadow Chancellor's emphasis on having a "jobs and growth plan", which plays into Tory criticism that Labour's solution is simply to borrow more. Veteran frontbenchers note the similarity to Gordon Brown's approach before the 2010 election, when he refused even to use the word "cuts".
Mr Miliband insists he is a man of steel, but in this turbulent political weather, his leadership is at risk of succumbing to rust.
A long time in politics: Seven days to forget for Ed Miliband
Sunday Interview with Mail on Sunday. In "Ed's geek drama", he admits he was "uncool" at Oxford, with "big glasses and nasty jumpers".
Tuesday John Rentoul, of The IoS, reveals Labour insider describing Ed's leadership win as "a Brownite coup dressed up as an Obama insurgency".
Wednesday Article by Maurice Glasman, former Miliband policy guru, published online by the New Statesman. Ed has "no strategy, no narrative and little energy," he says.
Thursday Diane Abbott, the shadow health minister, sparks a row after tweeting that "white people love playing 'divide & rule'". During a live TV interview, she breaks off to take a call: Ed giving her a "severe dressing down".
Friday The Guardian splashes on Jim Murphy, the shadow Defence Secretary, saying Labour must accept cuts to be credible. After the Twitter race row, Ed Tweets a tribute to Blockbusters' host Bob Holness who has died aged 83. "Sad to hear that Bob Holness has died. A generation will remember him fondly from Blackbusters."
Saturday The Twitter gaffe is covered by every newspaper, with stories on the front page of The Sun and page three of The Times, papers owned by Rupert Murdoch who has become Ed's arch-enemy. In a Guardian interview the Labour leader declares: "I am someone of real steel and grit." MC