Ed Miliband's political future hangs in the balance, top Labour figures say

Ed Miliband Speaks

Ed Miliband’s political future is hanging in the balance if the exit poll is correct, senior Labour figures have conceded.

Peter Mandelson said it was “very difficult indeed” to see Miliband becoming prime minister if the Conservatives won 316 seats and Labour 239, in accordance with the BBC numbers.

The Labour peer and former Downing Street adviser said Miliband had done a “magnificent job” during the campaign and he would not want to see him resign. However, Lord Mandelson sidestepped questions about whether he would like to see the Labour leader fight another election if Cameron returns as prime minister.

Asked by ITV News about Miliband’s chances of entering Downing Street, Mandelson said: “On these numbers and the exit poll, very difficult indeed. I don’t really see that, just as I don’t see it being straightforward for David Cameron to head up a majority government.”

David Blunkett, the Labour former home secretary, told the same programme that people should not rush to judgment about Miliband’s future. Asked whether he thought it would happen, he said: “Nobody’s answered that question and I’m not going to either. We need to see the reality on the ground.”

He added: “Somebody was earlier predicting that Ed Miliband will have gone within 24 hours. I hope not. I think we should take our time. I think we should lick our wounds if we have to. I think we should think seriously.”

Blunkett also opened the inquest over Labour’s possible defeat, saying the big mistake will have been the failure to dispel the impression that Gordon Brown’s government had been responsible for the financial crisis. He said: “If we have lost this election, we lost it from 2010, when in the six months from 2010 we failed to nail the lie that the Labour government had been responsible for the global meltdown and everything that happened in the US, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, was the Labour government’s fault.”

Miliband’s camp had believed that he had run a strong, tight campaign with few gaffes and apparently remaining neck and neck with the Conservatives in the opinion polls. But recriminations will soon begin to fly if the Labour leader has actually lost seats, with particular focus on what went wrong in Scotland and why the collapse of the party’s support there was not noticed and stemmed sooner.

It is still possible that Miliband would try to hang on as Labour leader in the event of Cameron becoming prime minister of a minority government or what looks like an insecure coalition. In this scenario, he could hope to have a go at forming a centre-left bloc if the Conservatives tried to create a stable government but struggled to pass legislation and ended up collapsing within weeks.

However, with the exit poll suggesting Miliband’s party was actually on course to lose seats, including an almost total wipeout in Scotland, it would be more credible for him to resign and allow a caretaker leader such as his deputy, Harriet Harman, to take over.

One of the key factors in his decision will be the possibility of a second election. Senior party figures would agonise over whether there would be time to get a new leader in place in the event of another imminent contest. But the temptation would be to replace Miliband if a second election took place in more than a year’s time. Possible candidates include shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, and shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna.

Despite the early speculation about Miliband’s future, senior Labour sources have openly questioned the exit poll, saying it did not tally with their experience of the results on the ground. Several allies of Miliband, including Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, began to attempt to shore up the Labour leader’s position by insisting that he could still be prime minister if Cameron was unable to form a majority.

Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, whose own seat is under threat from the Conservatives, struck a very optimistic note about Miliband’s chances “if the exit polls are even slightly wrong”. “If the exit poll is out by even 10 seats – let alone 20 or 30 – suddenly David Cameron cannot get a majority for a Queen’s speech. Then constitutionally it would fall to the leader of the opposition to become prime minister and see if he can get a Queen’s speech through the Commons.”

A more independent voice, Gus O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, said it was still possible for Miliband to be the next prime minister, but added that it “looks a very unlikely scenario” if Cameron did get the predicted 316 seats.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th May 2015 01.23 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010