Labour leader Ed Miliband is in trouble. But some within his party think he could be saved - by promising to devolve power and funding to regions such as the West Midlands.
Through a quirk of Parliamentary procedure, the task of responding to the Chancellor’s Budget statement falls not to the Shadow Chancellor but instead to the Leader of the Opposition, and so it was Mr Miliband who rose to his feet to attack the Budget delivered by the Chancellor, George Osborne.
And what he said has paved the way for a wave of criticism of his leadership.
Word got around Westminster that he’d done a lousy job.
The familiar buzzwords were there – “same old Tories”, “cost of living crisis”, “tax cut for millionaires” and so on.
What was missing was a response to the announcements in the Budget statement he was supposed to be replying to.
Sometimes in politics – or certainly in the Westminster “bubble” inhabited by MPs and journalists – a feeling takes hold which isn’t immediately put into words.
For some time now, there has been a sense that Mr Miliband is floundering. The idea that the Conservatives might actually win the next general election seemed increasingly plausible.
Consider the polls. Before the Budget, Labour tended to be five or six points ahead of the Tories – while at this time before the last election, the Tories were 12 points ahead.
And there are fears among some Labour MPs that the constant focus on the “cost of living crisis”, effective though it may be, is not sufficient. The party is failing to offer up big ideas about what it would do differently.
So Mr Miliband’s Budget speech isn’t the cause of murmurings within his party. But it provided the excuse for people to begin expressing their concerns.
Opinion polls after the Budget showing Labour’s lead had fallen to just one point didn’t help either, although two polls immediately after a Budget don’t really mean much.
Fear that Labour has failed to develop a big idea to impress voters have manifested themselves in a surprising way.
In a letter published in The Guardian, 19 leading figures from groups with close links to the party including the Fabian Society, Compass, Policy Network and Progress warned that Britain needed “a transformative change in direction” but warned: “If Labour plays the next election safe, hoping to win on the basis of Tory unpopularity, it will not have earned a mandate for such change.”
This isn’t idle speculation about a hypothetical situation.
The letter is saying in a roundabout way that right now, Labour appears to be playing the next election safe and hoping to win just because the Tories are unpopular.
The groups themselves may not be household names but they are influential within the Labour Party. The Fabian Society’s executive committee includes a number of Labour MPs, such as Shadow Welfare Minister Rachel Reeves.
Progress is chaired by Lord Adonis, Labour shadow Treasury minister, and Vice Chairs include Stoke MP and Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt.
It’s seen as the body representing Blarites in the party (or whatever they call themselves now Tony Blair is history). Meanwhile, Compass is seen as representing the left of the party.
Policy Network’s President is former Trade Minister Peter Mandelson and its chair is Labour shadow foreign office minister Lord Liddle.
So these organisations are big players within the party.
But what exactly do they want? It’s the policy proposal they set out in their letter that comes as a surprise – because what they demand is more “localism”, or devolution of power from Whitehall to local and regional bodies.
The letter calls on Labour to adopt policies in the 2015 manifesto based around “devolution of state institutions, by giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities and, where possible, directly to the people.”
This will be music to the ears of Labour councillors such as Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council, who has been urging the party to move in this direction for years.
But will it excite voters? It seems hard to imagine promises of greater localism giving Labour a massive poll boost.
Devolution is highlighted in the letter because it’s the subject of a behind-the-scenes battle.
Supporters of localism, like Lord Adonis and Labour’s policy co-ordinator Jon Cruddas, fear that Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, and Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary and Labour’s chair of general election strategy, are blocking their attempts to include bold proposals in devolution in the election manifesto.
But they also hope that Mr Miliband will recognise he needs bold policies to win the next election – and that a promise to devolve powers and funding to places like Birmingham and the West Midlands might be just the big idea he’s looking for.