Does Ed Miliband have a plan B?

The Labour leader tried to put a brave face on Thursday’s results. But he was fooling no one, least

It was a "quadruple whammy". The election of President Salmond. Failure to secure an overall majority in Wales. The crushing of the electoral reform dream. And, most staggering of all, defeat by the Tories in England in the share of the popular vote.

In last week's New Statesman, a senior Ed Miliband adviser said: "Every single hurdle that's been put in his way . . . he's got over." Not this one. Thursday was Ed Miliband's first big electoral test since becoming leader. He failed it.

But, and it's a big but, Labour's leader has also been presented with a corridor of opportunity. A narrow escape route has opened up. The question is whether he has the courage to traverse it.

Ever since defeating his brother, Miliband has in effect been a prisoner of that victory. His win, endorsed by a minority of his parliamentary colleagues and party members, came with a mandate to reject New Labour's brand of neoliberalism and construct a "progressive majority".

Unable to expand his political base, he has, through a combination of choice and necessity, stuck with that strategy, and the tiny but influential Compass-site clique that advocated it.

Go Chris? Or go solo?

To the extent that there has been a meaningful discussion about Labour's direction over the past six months, the options have boiled down to this: should the party appeal to a small and large "L" liberal constituency, or to a small and large "C" conservative one? By and large, Miliband has attempted the former. And the results of that approach were there for all to see on Thursday night and Friday morning.

Before last Thursday's elections, a shadow cabinet source told me: "Everyone's watching very closely to see how Ed responds. If things go badly have we got our own plan B?"

The answer appeared to have been provided in a briefing to yesterday's Observer. "The Labour leader says disaffected Lib Dems should stand with him", ran the introduction. The article went on:

While Miliband insists that his objective is still a majority Labour government and his immediate focus is on working with the Lib Dems against Tory policies, his overtures suggest that the party is prepared to plan for the possibility of a Lab-Lib deal after the next election.

Neal Lawson, director of Compass, welcomed this approach: "Ed Miliband knows he can't win a two versus one election against the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. And the best he can hope for right now is a progressive coalition government with a Liberal Democrat party that has dumped Nick Clegg."

The reaction among others was less effusive. "Has Ed Miliband gone mad?" asked one backbench MP who supported him for the leadership. "This is mental. The task is to define Labour and hit the Tories," said another. "I don't get it," said a shadow cabinet source. "Ed said: 'The voters have sent a message to David Cameron'. They did. It was, 'Oh well, carry on if you must.' "

Another senior Labour insider put it this way: "Ed has a clear choice. He can chase after a non-existent progressive majority, or he can try to bring middle- and working-class Tory voters home to Labour. Or, to put it another way, he can try to win on his own, or lose with Chris Huhne."

Ditch the compass

This is the choice, and opportunity, Miliband faces. If he wants, he can use the election results to relaunch his strategy. It would not be seen as a U-turn, but as an empathetic response to the voters.

It would show that he possesses the pragmatism he frequently accuses Cameron of lacking. And it would communicate that he has not given up on the prospect of victory.

There is obviously a downside. It would also mean confronting some of his erstwhile supporters. Policy shifts on important areas such as the economy, law and order, benefit reform, immigration and constitutional reform would be required.

But those internal battles would assist in giving him the definition he currently lacks, and would draw in support from those who to date have been wary of his style of leadership.

There are also signs that many of his own inner circle would back such a strategy. "The word among the shadow cabinet is a lot of Ed's people themselves want to dump all this progressive nonsense. It's only really Ed himself and the Compass mob who are clinging to it."

Ed Miliband tried to put a brave face on Thursday's results. But he was fooling no one, least of all himself.

The consensus was clear: south of the border, the big winner was Cameron and the big loser Clegg. If Labour's leader wants to take the fight to the former he cannot do so by appealing to a tiny rump of Liberal ultras clinging to the tattered legacy of the latter.

Miliband has a plan B. The question is whether he has the strength and courage to implement it.

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