Ed Miliband fights for his political life amid rumours of Labour backbench coup

Miliband insists talk of a backbench revolt is 'nonsense'

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Ed Miliband was forced to try to head off a move to oust him yesterday by Labour backbenchers who fear the party is heading for defeat at next May’s general election.

It is understood that at least three MPs have told Dave Watts, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), that Mr Miliband should quit for the sake of the party. “There is a crisis of confidence in him in the PLP,” said one senior MP.

While the Labour leader dismissed the idea of a plot against him as “nonsense”, one Labour insider told The Independent that the critics plan to persuade 100 backbenchers to sign a letter calling for a change of leadership. They hope the Shadow Cabinet would then refuse to rally behind Mr Miliband – in effect, a vote of no-confidence that would force him out.

If that happened, critics claimed, the Shadow Cabinet would anoint a new leader in a “coronation” to avoid a divisive leadership contest.

One source claimed that “active canvassing” was under way yesterday on behalf of Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, and Andy Burnham, the shadow Health Secretary. There is no evidence they are encouraging such moves. The other possible leader would be Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary who left the Shadow Cabinet four years ago and insists he does not want to return to front-line politics.

Several Labour MPs admitted morale in the PLP is at “an all-time low” after the party’s opinion poll lead over the Conservatives evaporated in recent weeks. They said Mr Miliband had not recovered from a disastrous Labour conference in September, in which he forgot to mention the deficit or immigration when he made his keynote speech without notes. Since then, Ukip came close to defeating Labour in a by-election in its safe seat in Heywood and Middleton and polls have suggested the Scottish National Party could capture many of Labour’s 41 seats in Scotland at the general election.

A YouGov survey for LBC published today found that 49 per cent of people believe Labour would be more likely to win the election if it replaced Mr Miliband. Only 17 per cent believe he would make the best prime minister, with 34 per cent opting for David Cameron.

MPs believe Mr Miliband was aware of a possible threat to his leadership when he reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet on Wednesday night. He promoted two close allies who worked on his 2010 Labour leadership campaign – Lucy Powell, who became vice-chairman in charge of day-to-day general election operations and Jon Trickett, who was made an adviser in Mr Miliband’s office.

“Ed saw it coming,” one MP said. “He is circling the wagons. It is being seen as the last throw of the dice.” Labour denied this interpretation.

Another critic said: “We are down to 29 per cent in the polls and that could go down further. He is less popular than Nick Clegg and he will cost us votes at the general election. We are hearing it on the doorstep. People are saying, ‘You are doing an alright job but we don’t like your leader’. He is costing me votes.”

Miliband aides dismissed speculation about a coup as “total shit”. They insisted there is no evidence of such a letter being drafted and pointed out that no MPs have gone public about it. Some critics believe he will weather the storm because there is no obvious successor and doubt there would be agreement at top of the party on who should take over.

The Labour leader said yesterday: “This is nonsense. My focus, the Labour Party’s focus, is on the country and the things that matter to the country. That’s the cost-of-living crisis, it’s the NHS, it’s the prospects for the next generation.” Asked whether some of his MPs were calling his leadership into question, Mr Miliband replied: “I don’t accept that this matter arises.”

Ms Powell told The Independent that Labour needed to “sharpen up our act” and said she would ensure that Mr Miliband “gets out there a lot more to talk to people more directly about how he is going to change the country. We need to communicate that in strong terms.” She admitted: “Where mistakes have been made, or are being made, we have got to eradicate them.”

She told the critics: “Whatever the doubters may say, this is an election we can win. We should all be focused on winning. Six months before an election, the last thing we need is that kind of navel-gazing.”

Ms Powell, who was Mr Miliband’s deputy chief of staff before becoming an MP, said Labour would deploy “all the talents” in the Shadow Cabinet in a more co-ordinated effort. This follows  criticism that Mr Miliband has been a “one-man band”.

Lord Soley, a former chairman of the PLP, told the BBC: “It is serious, it would be silly to say that every Labour MP was relaxed about the present situation. You know that’s not true and it’s no good me saying they are relaxed.” But he insisted the position was “retrievable,” calling for a “Team Labour approach” which gave Shadow Cabinet members a more prominent role rather than relying only on Mr Miliband to present the party’s case.

Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, insisted that Labour was united. He said of the rumours about a coup: “I think all this is nonsense, to be honest. I’ve no idea about any of this.”

Mr Balls told the BBC: “All I know is that everybody in the Labour Party, from Ed Miliband down, is focused on tackling the cost-of-living crisis, building an economy which works for working people, reforming Europe but not walking away, having tough and fair controls on immigration, saving our NHS – that’s what Labour’s for.”

Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society, said: “At the moment Ed is a hindrance to the Labour Party’s success” and that Mr Miliband needed to “up his game”. But he insisted: “I have not detected any groundswell of support for a leadership change and there is no alternative candidate. There is also the sense that spending three months with the party discussing its own leadership rather than fighting the election would be a colossal waste of time, which might not lead the party forward in any way … The party needs to get its confidence together and back him.”

Labour’s leaders-in-waiting

Yvette Cooper

The shadow Home Secretary would have strong backing among MPs and trade unions to become the party’s first permanent female leader. Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman have held the post on a temporary basis.

Supporters believe a female leader would boost Labour’s electoral appeal and unsettle David Cameron, who Labour claims has a “problem with women”.

Critics say Ms Cooper is unsure about whether to go for the top job. Her husband, Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, ran for the leadership in 2010 but would stand aside for her the next time there is a vacancy.

Alan Johnson

Seen by many Labour MPs as the “king over the water” who could transform the party’s fortunes. The former postman became leader of the postal workers’ union before entering politics  and rising to become  Home Secretary.

He has refused to join any leadership manoeuvres against Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. Friends say he is enjoying his new career as a writer. His first book, This Boy, told movingly about  how his 16-year-old sister brought him up after their mother died.

Critics say he lacks the ambition and hunger needed to be a party leader.

Andy Burnham

The former Health Secretary came fourth in a five-horse race for the Labour leadership in 2010, one place behind Mr Balls.

He has won plaudits since switching from the education to the health brief in opposition and accusing the Coalition of privatising the NHS.

His increased standing in the party was shown when he won the best reception  of any Shadow Cabinet  member at Labour’s conference in September, when he made a passionate defence of the “public NHS” and outlined plans to merge it with social care.

Supporters say the Liverpudlian would boost Labour’s dwindling appeal to its traditional working-class base. Critics doubt he is ready for the top job.