The Shadow Energy Secretary, tipped by many to win the Labour leadership contest through second preference votes, described Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, as “a kind of Tory”, and sought to make political capital out of what he called “widespread unhappiness” among Liberal Democrats.
“I am not going to start predicting who is going to defect and when they might do so, but there is a real chance for us to show that this coalition is going in the wrong direction as far as LibDem MPs are concerned and the welcome mat is out,” declared Mr Miliband.
He added: “Under my leadership, we would have a chance of attracting people over.”
Since the General Election, Labour claims that more than 20,000 people have joined it, many thought to be disenchanted LibDems.
At the weekend, Charles Kennedy, the former LibDem leader, who is known to be unhappy with his party getting into bed with the Tories, was forced to issue a strong denial that he had been in talks with Labour whips about defecting to Labour.
He dismissed the claims as “absolute rubbish” and noted: “I will go out of this world feet first with my LibDem membership card in my pocket.”
Yet there is a bubbling discomfort among Liberal Democrats, which some suggest will come to the boil at the party’s autumn conference in Liverpool next month. On the first day, Mr Clegg could receive a rough ride in a question and answer session with delegates while on the third there is a debate entitled “ensuring fairness in a time of austerity”.
Yesterday, Baroness Tonge, a senior LibDem peer, said the “crunch time” would be after the spending review in October when the depth and extent of the coalition’s cuts will be laid bare.
Nonetheless, she complained: “We are cutting far too much. The benefits programme is absolutely horrendous. How can we cut benefits when we are cutting public services? How can we cut benefits and say people should work when there is no work for them to go to? In the Lords, a lot of senior figures in the party are not happy.”
One recent poll has put Mr Clegg’s party on just 12% but last night the Deputy Prime Minister insisted the Liberal Democrats were not being damaged by their coalition with the Conservatives and that nobody would be taking any notice of his party if it were not in government.
He added: “It is one of the oldest rules in politics that parties in government … tend to get a dip in their popularity. Do I think we are going to be able to defy those rules of gravity at a time we are taking very difficult decisions on deficit reduction? No. That is unlikely.”