Ed Miliband had prepared a detailed action plan to start to oust David Cameron from Downing Street on the day after the general election, based on the private polling that showed the party ahead in key marginal seats.
The party leader was ready, if necessary, to form a minority Labour government that might later make an offer of a deal with the Liberal Democrats to strengthen his legitimacy, so confident was he of being able to reach No 10.
None of Labour’s election day scenario planning involved the possibility of an overall Tory majority, leaving the deputy leader, Harriet Harman, without a script as she toured the television studios on the night of the party’s election defeat.
The most senior figures in the campaign say the moment the exit poll was released that showed the Tories would be by far the largest party would be seared in their brains for ever. “The shock was just awful,” said one campaign aide.
Miliband’s confidence that he would become prime minister had been bolstered by a final private poll delivered to him a week before the election showing Labour two points ahead among the electorate in the 86 battleground seats and his own favourability ratings nearly matching David Cameron.
The shock of Labour’s inner circle form part of the most complete account of Ed Miliband’s five-year leadership, which culminated in a disastrous election night that saw the party lose 26 seats and achieve 30.4% of the vote, while the Conservatives achieved an overall majority.
The full account also reveals that:
• Labour felt trapped by the relentless Tory and media focus on the possibility of a Labour tie-up with the SNP, leaving a key adviser to bitterly complain in writing about the BBC’s media coverage.
• Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, played an increasing role in the final weeks of the campaign.
• Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, unsuccessfully urged Miliband to go on the attack over Cameron’s use of the SNP to sow division in the UK.
• Miliband was so unhappy that he had failed to mention the deficit in his party conference speech he shut himself in his hotel room with his wife and a few close aides.
• The Labour leader was advised on more than one occasion to change course, by making tougher pledges on the economy, but that one crunch meeting in June 2014 failed after Miliband got wind of what was proposed.
• Miliband’s own former advisers believe, but do not know for sure, the 8ft-high stone slab that set out his election pledges has been destroyed as planned, as one of its creators, Torsten Henricson-Bell, has ordered.
Marc Stears, one of Miliband’s closest allies, admitted the unexpected scale of the defeat had hurt the former Labour leader: “Although I am sure he is bruised, I am also sure he still believes that unless someone at some point deals with the inequality story, we are in a mess as a country. He still thinks the things he cares about remain the big questions, and even if they have not worked electorally … the country will have to answer them.”
The polling had led Labour to base its thinking around a central scenario that the Tories would take 285 seats and Labour 270. That was believed to be probably just enough to deprive Cameron of an overall majority, even if the Conservatives retained the support of the Lib Dems.
There is frustration in Miliband’s inner circle that the inaccurate polls turned the campaign into a referendum on a minority Labour administration.
But party insiders also admit that the potency of the Tory message about the SNP threat stemmed from pre-existing fears about Labour on the economy, an issue that Miliband did not address.
Labour had also planned the idea of making a broad offer to Clegg that would include an agreement to end the deficit on current account by 2018-19, the timetable proposed by the Liberal Democrats, and to accept the Lib Dems’ plan for £6bn of tax rises on the wealthiest.
But the election result meant that Miliband never had the chance to make the offer, or relocate the “Edstone” to Downing Street.
It was intended to be destroyed, but a previous attempt to break it up had to be called off when the media discovered its location in a south London warehouse.
Another plan for the stone to be broken up like the Berlin Wall, with the pieces sold for charity, was also rejected.
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