REBEL Labour MPs are attempting to remove Gordon Brown from power by provoking a "putsch'' against the British prime minister from inside the cabinet.
They claim that up to 45 MPs are prepared to put their names to the move against Mr Brown, which would place him under severe pressure in the run-up to Labour's annual conference, beginning in Manchester on Saturday.
That would still be some way short of the 71 needed to force a contest. Leading opponents of Mr Brown said their aim was to provoke a "substantial minority'' of cabinet ministers, numbering up to 10, into telling the prime minister: "The game is up.''
Their tactics came to light as the revolt against Mr Brown gathered pace, with eight MPs publicly calling for a leadership contest. Labour's high command hit back swiftly. One of the rebels, Joan Ryan, was stripped of her roles as the Government's envoy to Cyprus and as the party's vice-chair.
Ray Collins, Labour's general secretary, said he would not issue nomination papers to all MPs because the party's conventions did not allow it. Instead, MPs will have to request the papers individually. So far, nine have asked for nomination papers, four of whom have stated they have done so: Siobhan McDonagh, Ms Ryan, George Howarth and Fiona Mactaggart.
Another, Janet Anderson, has said she will do so, while three more MPs, Graham Stringer, Gordon Prentice and John McDonnell, have called publicly on Mr Brown to go.
It is believed that two more MPs seen as "ringleaders'' of the plot, Jim Dowd and Graham Stringer, are also among the nine. Others identified by senior party sources as having requested papers include Frank Field, Greg Pope and Barry Gardiner. Most of the group are former supporters of Tony Blair.
Ms Ryan, a former Home Office minister, said: "I think we need to have a leadership election to trigger a deep and far-reaching debate. Those people in our party who have something to offer and are capable of leadership need to put themselves forward.''
She said a "huge number'' of Labour MPs agreed with her. Other rebel leaders put the total of those who would go public at 45. Last Friday, the first MP to come forward, Ms McDonagh, was fired as a junior whip.
A former minister said: "There is a group in the cabinet who are thinking about doing something. It is a substantial minority: more than two but fewer than 10.''
An MP close to Mr Brown described the plotters as "the same old Blairite names'' and dismissed the plot as "half-cocked''.
Labour's woes are continuing. An opinion poll yesterday shows, with the party on 27 per cent, 19 points behind the Tories. The Liberal Dem-ocrats, whose conference begins this weekend, are on 16 per cent.