Grumbling about Ed Miliband's leadership has resurfaced among Labour MPs after the Opposition failed to capitalise on gloomy economic forecasts and the Coalition's split over Europe.
Many Labour MPs are leaving Westminster in downbeat mood after the final Prime Minister's Questions before Christmas on Wednesday. Several fear David Cameron's demolition of Mr Miliband is a symbolic moment that will haunt the Labour leader.
Mr Miliband seemed to have an easy task – exploiting the public divisions between the Prime Minister and his deputy, Nick Clegg, over Britain's isolation at last week's EU Brussels summit. But he was flattened by a Cameron joke.
As they trooped out of the chamber, Labour MPs rued their leader's failure to hit his target. "Everyone had their heads down," one admitted. "If we can't score goals when the economy's in such a bad state and the cabinet is split, we have a problem."
Another, who backed Mr Miliband for the leadership last year, summed up his party's mood as "depressed".
Labour MPs' anxieties have been increased by an apparent "bounce" in polls since Mr Cameron's EU veto. A ComRes poll for The Independent, taken after the summit, put the Conservatives and Labour both on 38 per cent, with the Tories up two points and Labour down two since a survey just before the EU meeting. An Ipsos MORI poll put the Tories two points ahead, as did two surveys by YouGov, which also showed a large rise in Mr Cameron's standing (see graphic, right).
"He seems to be benefiting from a 'Europe factor', "said Peter Kellner, president of YouGov. "In contrast, Ed Miliband's and Nick Clegg's ratings, already low, have slipped further." He compared it to the "Falklands factor" that propelled Margaret Thatcher to election victory in 1983 but admitted it was too soon so say whether the Cameron bounce will last.
Other experts are not so pessimistic about the Labour leader's performance. In an internal BBC memo, its editor of political research, David Cowling, points out that Mr Miliband's satisfaction ratings are higher than Mr Cameron's during his first year as Tory leader.
Mr Cameron's personal ratings also trailed those of his party, as do Mr Miliband's now. Mr Cowling thinks the Labour leader has a year to prove whether he can win over the voters.
The muttering is not new. It was happening in spring before Mr Miliband defied his internal critics by taking on Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking – and winning. He set the agenda and Mr Cameron was forced to follow it.
Grumbling resumed after his conference speech calling for the Government to reward "producers" and punish "predators". Debating the future of capitalism was seen as "going off at a tangent" by some frontbenchers. But global anti-capitalist protests later won Mr Miliband grudging respect.
Some Labour MPs believe the party's problems stem more from its economic policy than its leader's performance. In Labour eyes, the Chancellor George Osborne's gloomy autumn statement proved his strategy is not working and vindicated their claims that his cuts have choked off recovery. But the public seems to view things differently. Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne turned the tables on Labour by portraying its policy of cutting the deficit more slowly as "the answer to a debt crisis is more borrowing".
One Labour frontbencher warned yesterday: "We're winning the economic argument but in danger of losing the war." There are signs of a Labour rethink, at least about its language on the economy. Mr Osborne's announcement of two more years of cuts after the next election has increased the pressure.
Mr Miliband has warned his party that its goal of social justice will have to be achieved by other means, that there will be no return to the "Blair-Brown era" of ever-higher public spending. Miliband allies dismiss the latest Labour grumbling, saying that in the long run one good joke by Mr Cameron will matter a lot less than the Prime Minister's flawed judgment on the economy and Europe.
A Labour spokesman said last night: "We've been ahead in the polls for a year. In that time, we've gained 65,000 members, won four by-elections and led the way in setting out a new agenda and what is wrong with Britain and challenging the consensus about what the solution should be.
"On any objective measure, Labour has recovered quicker than an opposition in living memory after 13 years in government and our second worst defeat since universal suffrage was introduced.
"People have put the bar in the wrong place about where we should be. It is an incredibly hostile environment but we are extremely confident about our prospects."
There is no sign the muttering will turn into an attempt to oust Mr Miliband. But some MPs warn that could change if the party fails to win the London Mayoral election next May. Perhaps Mr Miliband will want to give his party's candidate Ken Livingstone a helping hand.
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