Precisely six months out from the general election, it might be expected Labour would have been marching in clear, disciplined formation across open ground, guns at the ready, eyes trained on the fixed positions of the enemy.
Instead, this week morale collapsed, nervous troops scattered to the bushes and calls came from the officer class for the ranks to regroup and restore order.
It was if the party suddenly thought that, after weeks of self-denial, it might be a good idea to start a collective nervous breakdown.
Even now the precise nature of the revolt from the shadows is disputed. Some claim the last few days were either a fiction of the Murdoch press, still smarting over Ed Miliband’s role in helping to launch the Leveson inquiry, or else a diffuse small group of malcontents – some on the old right worried by Ukip and others on the Blairite wing angered by the repeated trashing of the legacy of New Labour.
But the discontent is genuine. Less than half an hour after Peter Hain, a Miliband early adopter, had appeared on the BBC to denounce with true passion and anger the self-indulgent anonymous backbenchers who were risking a Labour government, a backbencher rang the Guardian unsolicited to say that was the worst thing Hain could have done.
The MP, who asked not to be named, said: “To describe us as self-indulgent is precisely wrong. I don’t think Ed realises how many backbenchers and junior ministers have just turned a corner with him. It stretches right across the party.
“I have been surprised by the speed and intensity of the shift. Despondency has turned to despair and people feel something major has got to change. I don’t think it is going to be solved by giving some shadow cabinet members a bit more airtime. Nor is it about changing the communications team.
“That is so depressing – looking around in the weeds when the problem is him. The reshuffle was a missed opportunity. Isolated, he has just surrounded himself with his oldest allies.”
Another MP, who also asked not to be named, was more forthright: “It’s clear people have seen the writing on the wall. Even if Ed survives this he will not recover and the party has to come to terms with this. Two thirds of the party would be happy for him to go.”
Such anonymous briefings deeply frustrate readers trying to understand what is happening and infuriate many Labour loyalists including the LabourList website that on Friday issued a call for the dissenters “to put up or shut up”.
It is also hard to gauge the true breadth of anger since the plotters have every interest in exaggerating the numbers in the shadows.
In his book Power Trip, Damian McBride – Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor cum bodyguard – offers a short manual to prosecuting a leadership rebellion.
He writes: “Momentum is everything to succeed. The plotters must keep pushing the leader to the edge of the cliff. And the crucial determinants of that momentum are the media – if they say it is fizzling out, then that becomes self-fulfilling. If they say one more bad day will make the leader’s position untenable, then it usually will.”
Describing Brown as the Charles de Gaulle of Downing Street for surviving so many assassination attempts, McBride argues that his boss stayed alive in no small part because he was tougher, better organised and in possession of better intelligence than the amateur forces arraigned against him.
In this case, it is not even clear there is an organised plot. There may be mutterings in leadership circles about the behaviour of Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, and the extent to which he is focused on what might happen after the 2015 election.
But suggestions that Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, are secretly uniting as an alternative dream team to remove Miliband have been denied in the most vituperative terms. Some of their camp blame Blairites for spreading poison, proof that old enmities survive.
Either way, for the Labour leader’s office it is frustrating that this story gets so much traction at a time when David Cameron has suffered two defections by MPs, one byelection defeat and a likely second, and in the last published poll by Survation the Tories are on 27%, just three points ahead of Ukip and behind Labour’s 31%.
What will disturb the Labour party high command is the speed with which MPs appeared to be gripped by neurosis once the normally loyal New Statesman called him “an old-style Hampstead socialist” out of touch with the “lower middle class or material aspiration”.
Three factors played a part. The Labour conference misfired badly, and looks even worse in retrospect. Perhaps no one knows the true purpose of a party conference any longer, but it certainly did not act as a showcase for a confident shadow cabinet to radiate their energy.
Few Labour politicians foresaw the speed with which remorse would emerge in Scotland after the referendum no vote. Polls taken since suggest the Scottish National party would gather 52% of votes at a general election for the first time in its history.
Analysis suggesting that 20 Labour seats in Scotland look vulnerable not only shook 20 Scottish MP out of any complacency but put greater pressure on Labour to win big in England.
Yet, at the very same time, the dissidents noted pollsters had detected a pattern of Labour leaking support not just in Scotland. They pointed to research conducted by Anthony Wells from YouGov. He said that in 2012: “Labour was picking up support from everywhere and holding on to what they had. Today they still have the benefit of a strong transfer from the Liberal Democrats (though even that’s declining), but they are leaking support in every direction – to the Greens, to Ukip and to the SNP.”
Miliband is quite open about the fact Britain has entered a new era of four-party politics, making safe predictions about the electoral consequences impossible. In a statement made on Facebook on Friday, he set out how he planned to win the election before arguing that “every country around the world is facing huge changes in their economies and the rise of new inequality which is churning our politics”. Ukip, the midterms in the US and popular revolts in Europe, from left and right, are all part of the same phenomenon, his aides say.
But the paradox is that Miliband, one of the most radical postwar Labour leaders, might be losing the mantle as the agent of change to the likes of Ukip, YouGov suggests.
Naturally, Miliband’s aides insist they still have the right message for voters, in part provided by David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s former strategist. In essence, it is: “This recovery is not working for you, the everyday working people. It is working for the few.” That chimes well with his core message on inequality.
Miliband’s internal critics say he may be offering a battle against inequality, but it needs an economic motor at its core or else people will not believe it is credible. That in turn probably requires clearer agreements between Miliband and shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, about the deficit, tax and spending. Balls himself probably thinks he cannot just keep saying no to Miliband. There needs to be a clearer structure to Labour economics.
This weekend will likely be full of commissioned opinion polls showing how disconnected Miliband is from the public – replete with Tory soundbites along the lines of: “He is not up to it.” But unless a senior shadow cabinet member decides to throws caution to the wind, this week’s revolt is going to remain in the shadows.
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