Now some of you kids out there may remember John Major... for the benefit of anyone under 30, Major was a Tory PM, sort of ran the country for several years in the 1990s, struggling with a small parliamentary majority against Eurosceptic backbench rebels, a growing reputation for sleaze and incompetence, and continual threats of a leadership challenge which led him to resign his own party leadership in the summer of 1995, securing a thumping re-election win against John "Mr Spock" Redwood.
At one famous meeting in 1993 Major referred to three of his Eurosceptic cabinet colleagues as "bastards". They were never officially named but they were probably Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo (then in his hard right phase).
Now, the "bastards" were not enough of a hindrance to Major to ensure that he lost the 1997 election, because the economic disaster of Black Wednesday (even though it was actually the start of a period of rapid growth for the UK economy) did that by itself. Even if there had been no "bastards", the Tories would have lost - pretty heavily - in 1997. What the "bastards" probably managed to do was turn a heavy defeat into a rout, making it impossible for the Tories to come back in 2001 and even in 2005.
But the Major era already feels like ancient history - so why bring it up now? Because there are "bastards" somewhere in the Blairite hard right of the Labour party and one or more of those bastards is gunning for Ed Miliband (and also Ed Balls). The spate of leaks in both the Telegraph (which we fully expect this kind of behaviour from) and the Guardian (for which it is a most unwelcome recent development) is strong evidence for some kind of anti-Eds plot.
In a recent post I was very uncomplimentary about Labour's hard right - some might call them the LINOs (Labour In Name Only) or the FOTC (Friends of the ConDems), among other names - in a recent post when I accused them of living in 1996. In fact, that is probably too modern - they're living in 1993. For them, Ed Miliband is John Major, they think he's crap, and they want to take him down.
But how? What is the mechanism? As Dan Hodges - surely a supporter of the plot, though unlikely to have the clout to orchestrate it - has pointed out, a new Labour leadership contest this side of the next general election is most unlikely. Even if the present parliament makes it to 2015 (which I'd only give 50-50 odds at best on), the Labour party does not really have the funds to spend millions of pounds on another 4-month contest. Also there is no obvious right-wing alternative candidate for leader apart from David Miliband, who I just can't see launching himself into a rematch against his brother.
But if there is no appetite for a contest, then there is only one way of changing the leader before the next general election: Ed Miliband would have to be persuaded to do an Iain Duncan Smith and step down in the party interest. It's worth thinking very carefully about how bad Ed's performance would have to be, and how bad the party's situation would have to be, for this to be seen as the best thing for him to do.
Based on 9 months in the job, I'd say Ed's performance is OK - neither brilliant, nor crap. I don't watch Prime Minister's Questions very often because it's dull repetitive knockabout, but based on collating all the evidence from media accounts and bloggers and allowing for bias, Ed seems to be pretty much even stevens against Cameron at the moment. I think he needs to point out that Cameron is a serial liar and that ConDem policy is in total disarray on several key fronts, but once he can start to land big hits like that, he'll be coming off best pretty much every week.
Ed hasn't managed to build on his September 2010 Labour conference speech to articulate a vision of "New Generation" Labour as much as he should have done - but he has got the policy review process going, and that's sensible and important. F*** knows why he put Liam Byrne in charge of it, but there you go. Ed has also managed to put the "squeezed middle" in the centre stage of public debate. Both Eds need to be much more visible in pointing out the failures of ConDem economic and social policies, and in articulating a clear alternative strategy, but the potential is there.
For Ed to be persuaded to resign, the Labour Party's situation would have to be hopeless with him at the helm and moreover, Ed would have to feel it's hopeless. The former scenario seems most unlikely, the latter pretty much impossible. Currently, Labour is regularly 5 to 8 points in front of the Tories on YouGov polling. The May local elections were not spectacularly good but nor were they a disaster for Labour (except in Scotland). Quite simply things are Not Bad Enough for a "Stand Down Ed" bandwagon to roll. And even if the situation did deteriorate somehow, from what we know of him so far, Ed is a tenacious cookie - as was his mentor Gordon Brown - and having secured this job, there's no reason to suppose he'd just walk away from it if the going got tough.
Now, unless the "bastards" are deluded they must know all of the above. So therefore, I conclude that their objective is not to force a leadership change before the next general election, but instead to destabilise Ed's leadership and the Labour party with the ultimate aim of replacing him AFTER the next election. For Ed to be replaced, Labour would certainly have to lose the next general election. From which, in turn, I conclude that the "bastards" are deliberately trying to make Labour lose the next election so that they can say "I told you so" and they can take over the Labour party.
As political strategies go, this is about as underhand, counter-productive and downright vicious as you can get. But it's also utterly predictable. No-one said politics was a nice business, and Ed showed he could handle this kind of crap - and dish it out in return - during the Labour leadership campaign.
It's tempting to call for Ed to round on his critics - perhaps with a "back me or sack me" appeal along the lines of what Major did in 1995 - but I think that would be extremely counterproductive at this stage because the plot really is not that strong, whatever the Sunday papers think. Far better to ride it out and stick to the main game plan, while also doing more to articulate that "Vision Thing" that so many of us want to see. 2012 will get easier for Ed IMHO because the economy will probably be in dire straits, Ken will most likely beat Boris for London Mayor in 2012 (a huge psychological boost - I'll post on the electoral logistics of this separately), and also there will be fresh shadow cabinet elections in autumn 2012 where a lot of the Blairite "dead wood" is likely to drop out in favour of fresher - and mostly more Ed-friendly - faces. In retrospect, 2011 will no doubt turn out to have been the high water mark of the anti-Ed rumblings. I think we have to suffer a few months more of the "bastards", but so what? They have a few high-level media contacts and leaked papers but not much else, and their bark is a lot worse than their bite. To paraphrase Blade Runner: "they're not police, they're little people".