The risks of an election can be avoided by not holding one
Sixty thousand tweets of support for Ed Miliband this last week may have put a dampener on speculation about his leadership survival prospects, though not as much as the definitive statement from Alan Johnson ruling himself out of any future contest. For all the goodwill in the country, those who have the Labour leaderâ€™s future in their hands remain the MPs and shadow ministers at Westminster.
For the reality remains that as long as Milibandâ€™s personal ratings remain so poor, and as long as the direction of travel in Labourâ€™s polling is southward, he is only one blunder or comment or interpretation from â€˜another leadership crisisâ€™ in the reporting of the media.
That may not matter as far as his future as leader goes: Labour has little history of ditching its leaders and the very fact of the tweetfest shows the instinctive loyalty of many of his supporters. On the other hand, that it was felt necessary is also telling. Even so, talk is easy; action is much harder and in the Labour Party, the rules make it nigh-on impossible to shift a leader through the formal procedures, if heâ€™s intent on staying.
The formal rules, however, are not the be all and end all, though they do frame the context in which the debate about Milibandâ€™s future should be seen. Itâ€™s generally accepted that had David Miliband resigned at the same time as James Purnell, in June 2009 when Labour was sinking to less than 16% in the European election, he would have had no choice but to go. Being party leader is not enough: you have to be able to put a government together (or be capable of doing so as Leader of the Opposition).
The problem, for any group seeking to mount a coup is that itâ€™s not enough to engineer Milibandâ€™s removal; theyâ€™d need to be reasonably sure that the outcome would be sufficiently beneficial to make the disruption worth it and elections are inherently uncertain processes, as well as being, in Labourâ€™s case, expensive and time-consuming.
There is, however, a loophole to be exploited. Labour doesnâ€™t demand a leadership election be held at the earliest convenience in the event of a vacancy; it could be deferred until the summer, with the result to be announced at the party conference. In the interim, the Deputy Leader would step up to the top job. In other words, all it would take for Miliband to be deposed is for enough shadow cabinet members and/or MPs to believe it necessary, and for the NEC to be squared about the timetable thereafter.
The benefits of such a manoeuvre are obvious. For the party, it would save the best part of two monthsâ€™ infighting and hundreds of thousands of pounds in printing and postage and provide an image of unity. For the other potential leadership candidates, Harman is, at 64, enough of an old pope for young cardinals to vote for. Even were she to win the election, sheâ€™d be unlikely to serve more than a term and a half. The Burnhams, Coopers and Umunnas would still stand a chance of their bite at the cherry. In addition, while she undoubtedly has her critics, she wouldnâ€™t be quite the generic politician as Clegg, Cameron or Miliband are. Her gender alone would mark her out, should she choose to mention it.
Do I expect Labour to dump Miliband? No, I donâ€™t â€“ but he is currently skating on very thin ice and the wrong mis-step at the wrong time would prove terminal, so nor would I rule it out entirely. If so, Harriet could be the man.
Harman is available at 40/1 to be next Labour leader and 80/1 to be next PM