Ed Miliband is under fire from all sides. "He just tickles the tummy of the party," say some of the Blairites backing David Miliband. "He's far too junior to be party leader," say some of the Brownites backing Ed Balls. "He'll take Labour back to the 1980s," say the conservative commentators supporting David Cameron.
We are witnessing Operation Target Ed Miliband. As he sets off for his summer holiday in Cornwall, the younger Miliband brother could be forgiven for thinking that he must be doing something right to be attracting such pointed criticism from rivals and right-wingers alike. Some might have expected the shadow energy secretary, with just five years' experience of parliament, to be trailing far behind his elder brother, David, the former foreign secretary, and to be in close competition with the "other Ed" for the trade union vote. But as of 26 July, the date on which supporting nominations closed, Ed Miliband was snapping at the heels of his brother, with 147 constituency party nominations compared with David's 165. He had also been endorsed by the country's three biggest unions: the GMB, Unison and Unite.
While the elder Miliband remains the undisputed front-runner and has been endorsed by more than 100 council and Labour group leaders across the country, among others, it is the younger Miliband who seems to have the momentum. "David should be pulling away by now, but isn't," says a worried supporter.
The 24 July decision by Unite's national policy committee to back Ed Miliband was a huge boost for him, with several delegates who began the morning favouring Ed Balls switching over by the end of a lively meeting. "If you want to stop David Miliband, then Ed [Miliband] is the only show in town," says a senior Unite official. "Plus, we have to move beyond Blair and Brown, and David Miliband is the Blairite and Ed Balls is the Brownite."
The irony is that it is Ed Miliband who has surrounded himself with former aides to Gordon Brown - including his chief strategist, Stewart Wood, the impressive former Oxford don and foreign affairs adviser to Brown in No 10.
I get the impression that it is the younger Miliband who will pick up most of the second-preference votes cast for rival candidates such as Ed Balls and Diane Abbott. To the party rank and file, he is the least offensive, and least factional, of the five contenders. Yet there is a danger that, in choosing Ed Miliband as leader, the party will be reverting to the psychodramas of the Blair-Brown era, with David Miliband and Ed Balls competing to play the role of a sulking Gordon Brown.
Friends of David Miliband hint that the shadow foreign secretary will quit the front bench if he loses, and perhaps politics altogether. However, David told me last week that he was "not walking away from the Labour Party", adding: "I'm very happy to serve under anyone." He didn't sound especially convincing, and it would be understandable if he found it difficult to work under his younger brother.
Meanwhile, an ally of the shadow education secretary told me: "I don't know how Ed [Balls] will reconcile himself to Ed Miliband as leader. When they were both in the Treasury, it was Ed B and not Ed M who intellectually dominated the department. He was the senior man."
For Ed Balls, the past week has been the point when his campaign seemed to run aground. Paradoxically, he has had the highest media profile of any of the contenders, robustly leading the Labour attacks on the coalition government. But he could not persuade his union friends to pick him over the younger and less experienced Ed Miliband. Balls secured the endorsement of only one major union, the CWU, and came bottom of the five candidates in constituency nominations.
Publicly, the Balls campaign is sticking to an "It's all still to play for" line. Allies of the shadow education secretary have reminded me of the 2007 deputy leadership election. Then, Peter Hain raised the most money and yet came fifth in the first round; Hilary Benn obtained the most CLP nominations but came fourth; Alan Johnson had the most support from MPs but came third. In the end, Harriet Harman, without the endorsement of a single major union, defeated both Johnson and Jon Cruddas, who had the support of Unite. However, privately, Balls has conceded that he cannot win. Friends say the decisions to endorse Ed Miliband by Unison and, in particular, by Unite (despite the best behind-the-scenes efforts of his friend and fixer Charlie Whelan) have shaken him.
Will he pull out? His closest supporters are adamant that he won't, but the shadow education secretary has told friends that he feels boxed in by "Tony Blair on my right and Tony Benn on my left".
Balls is not the only Labour MP to have tagged Ed Miliband as a Bennite. When I mentioned the accusation to Ed Miliband himself, he merely sighed. "I think the public are much more sophisticated than that," he told me, and: "The idea that campaigning for a living wage or a high pay commission makes you a Bennite is ridiculous."
The "one of us" factor
It is obviously absurd to dismiss anyone articulating policy positions to the left of the Blair-Brown orthodoxy as a Bennite. Ed Miliband is attempting to forge a modern vision of social democracy, as Roy Hattersley, of the party's "old right", and others have pointed out. Miliband's allies would also argue that, in fact, their man is in line with public opinion on many important issues - from regulating bankers' bonuses to repudiating the Iraq war.
Sources close to both Balls and David Miliband, however, believe Ed Miliband deserves much greater scrutiny, if not criticism, from the media. "The right-wing press have spent the past two or three years attacking Ed Balls, so it only makes sense that they turn their fire on Ed Miliband," says a Balls supporter.
Attacks on the younger Miliband could prove counterproductive. I suspect right-wing commentators who claim that he is "on course to destroy the Labour Party" and who urge party members to back the "more authoritative" David Miliband will send those members straight into the arms of the former, not the latter. This is a Labour leadership election, after all, so why not vote for the candidate who best reflects the views of the party? Operation Target Ed Miliband could yet backfire.