David Miliband prepares the ground for a return to the frontline

So, we’re back here again: a Labour leader being given not very coded warnings that they have a certain period of time to get their act together before… well, no-one quite knows what.

Despite the gathering economic gloom, an opinion poll puts the Tories on 40 per cent, with Labour on 34 per cent, with David Cameron apparently enjoying a surge in support after his use of the EU veto earlier this month.  While the PM’s personal ratings have improved sharply, in the latest YouGov poll, asked to name a single quality of Ed Miliband's, half of all voters say 'none'.

Now Mr Miliband is being served notice that he has 12 months by senior Labour figures to turn around his faltering leadership. Yesterday it was former Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour, inserting the stiletto heel between Mr Miliband’s shoulderblades.

Daggers: Even Lord Mandelson (right) has criticised Ed Miliband

Worst of all, there are growing signs that Mr Miliband's vanquished brother David is once again on manoeuvres.

Lord Mandelson, for his part, issued a silky warning that there were ‘dangers’ in Mr Miliband’s readiness to abandon the centre ground of politics from which Tony Blair won three election victories.

The peer said Mr Miliband’s vision needed to ‘take shape over the coming year’ – an indication that Blairites have set a deadline for the Labour leader to establish himself more convincingly in the public imagination.

‘I think from Labour we want to see more definition of what the new project is all about - perhaps more policy and fewer jokes at Prime Minister's questions,’ Lord Mandelson said.

‘What Ed Miliband needs to do is - he's a chap with views, he has a position in politics and he has a project: that needs to take shape over the coming year.

‘It's not New Labour, he's perfectly clear about that. He believes we need a different sort of social contract - there are dangers in developing that.’

Waiting in the wings: There are growing signs that David Miliband is once again on manoeuvres

Waiting in the wings: There are growing signs that David Miliband is once again on manoeuvres

Tom Scholes-Fogg, a Labour activist who campaigned for Mr Miliband's leadership, said he now regretted the decision, saying that more than a year on from the victory, he stood ‘in the middle of nowhere’.

‘If there was a leadership election with the same five candidates I would now back David Miliband. David is more of a statesman. He would be taking on the Government much more, and laying out his vision for the country and the Labour Party,’ he said.

‘Ed Miliband, on the other hand, is in the middle of nowhere. He said he will fight for the centre ground, but he hasn't identified where that centre ground is. I don't know what he stands for, or where he wants to take the country.’

Shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, a rival candidate for the Labour leadership last year, insists Mr Miliband has laid ‘very strong foundations’ for the party’s future success.

‘What I hear from people is they look at the Prime Minister, out of touch, arrogant, increasingly cocky and they compare him with Ed Miliband who is someone who is in touch with people, who understands their concerns and who is speaking for them,’ he told Sky News.

‘We’re ready to move forward next year. It’s a hard job, but Ed is doing a really good job of rebuilding Labour in opposition, and bringing us back to a position where we’re ready for government.

‘If I have one comment, I think Labour in the New Year needs to bring forward some inspiring new policies.

‘It’s not necessarily about personalities and polls and all of that, it’s what are we saying about the future of this country? That’s the challenge for Labour in 2012.’

Gloom: Mr Miliband is being served notice that he has 12 months by senior Labour figures to turn around his faltering leadership

Gloom: Mr Miliband is being served notice that he has 12 months by senior Labour figures to turn around his faltering leadership

Fundamentally, though, there’s an increasing sense of alarm among Labour MPs who fear that Mr Miliband will never cut the mustard. There’s disloyal talk that only two shadow Cabinet ministers are 100 per cent behind him, and one of those is wavering.

Former Labour strategist Dan Hodges claims party figures are openly discussing plans for a ‘dream ticket’ deal between shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and former foreign secretary David Miliband to oust him as party leader.

Certainly, senior Tories would not welcome a Cooper leadership. Cabinet ministers whisper that Cameron and Osborne simply wouldn’t know how to contend with a woman leading the Opposition. ‘Can you imagine Dave doing last week’s Flashman routine on Yvette?’ asks one senior figure. ‘He couldn’t do it – it would offend those Etonian manners.’

Whether Labour has the appetite to oust a leader, having repeatedly failed to get rid of Gordon Brown, is another question. If, as many expect, Mr Cameron’s EU poll boost proves relatively short-lived, it will be difficult to get rid of Mr Miliband while he is ahead in the polls.

In the red: Does Labour have the appetite to oust a leader?

In the red: Does Labour have the appetite to oust a leader?

The loss of London next May, however, could prove a turning point. Mr Miliband’s allies are getting their excuses in early, blaming Ken Livingstone’s lacklustre campaign for the possibility of  a victory for Boris Johnson at the height of Tory austerity measures.

But David Miliband increasingly appears to be preparing the ground for some sort of return to the frontline. In an interview with the excellent Amber Elliott, of Total Politics magazine, to be published tomorrow, he says he is on ‘a journey’ with his grassroots ‘Movement for Change’ organisation.

‘It gave me an important outlet for my passion for electing Labour Party governments, given that I wasn’t going to be in the shadow cabinet,’ he says. ‘It was a good way for fulfilling my passion to make the Labour Party a relevant, powerful, electable organisation that lived up to the best of its potential. But if you’re suggesting that it’s providing me with a family I didn’t have, then no.’

And the Labour leadership contest? ‘I’m proud I did it and I would do it again. It’s a very important part of my politics that we’re a movement, not just a machine. When we are a machine, we lose. We’ve got to become a movement again if we want to win. And I want us to win.’

It won't be a restful break, I suspect, in the Ed Miliband household. 

Read James Chapman's RightMinds blog here

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