| 5.3°C Dublin

Failed leadership heave adds to Brown's election pressures

Gordon Brown clung on to his job as British prime minister on Wednesday after another attempt by former ministers to oust him before the election appeared to fizzle out.

But Brown loyalists were furious that a third attempted coup since he succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 could derail Labour's general election effort by reminding voters of Labour's divisions and its doubts about its leader.

Remarkably, the putsch was launched only two days after Labour kicked off its campaign by attacking David Cameron's spending plans -- and just four months before the expected May election.

In another blow to Mr Brown's authority, the latest "poll of polls" undermines claims by his supporters that Labour has enjoyed a bounce in the opinion polls.

Although some surveys have suggested Britain is heading for a hung parliament, the "poll of polls" shows the Conservatives on 40pc, Labour on 29pc, and the Liberal Democrats on 19pc. These figures would give Mr Cameron an overall majority of 20 at a general election.

Labour's support has risen by only one point since October and is still five points lower than its 34 per cent rating a year ago, when it trailed the Tories by only five points instead of the current 11.

One cabinet minister admitted: "There has been no recovery in the polls. There is a tiny hardening of support among the core vote but nothing else."

Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon, the former cabinet ministers, sparked a day of frenzy at Westminster by calling for a secret ballot of Labour MPs on whether Mr Brown should remain as party leader.

But by Wednesday night, only five other backbenchers had signed up to the demand -- allowing leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party to dismiss it.

Some rebels believed at least three cabinet ministers would tell Mr Brown to quit. In the event, the British cabinet rallied behind him -- but the backing of some ministers was lukewarm and declarations of support took several hours -- much longer than after James Purnell resigned as the UK's work and pensions secretary last June. This prompted speculation that the cabinet was "having a wobble" about Mr Brown.

Backbench critics claimed the slow response revealed private doubts about the prime minister. "Ministers were hardly rushing on to the airwaves," one pointed out. Brown loyalists such as Ed Balls and Nick Brown were among the first to declare their support while some senior ministers, including Lord Mandelson, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson and Alistair Darling, issued written statements rather than giving media interviews. Some ministers held private talks with Mr Brown before backing him.

Some ministers were less than effusive about him in their statements. David Miliband, the foreign secretary and a frontrunner to succeed Mr Brown, said cautiously that he "supported the re-election campaign for a Labour government". He added: "I am working closely with the prime minister on foreign policy issues and support the re-election campaign for a Labour government that he is leading."

Ms Harman, Labour's deputy leader, also chose her words carefully: "We're all united in our determination to do what's best for the country, which is for Labour, led by Gordon Brown, to win the general election."

Mr Darling, the chancellor, said: "The prime minister and I met this afternoon and we discussed how we take forward economic policies to secure the recovery. I won't be deflected from that."

Plotters have not given up hope that one or more middle-ranking ministers may endorse the secret ballot call and resign, prompting a cabinet revolt.

One rebel said: "The name of the game is destabilisation. We learnt it from what Gordon Brown did to Tony Blair. It's not a conspiracy. We have set the ball rolling and we will see whether it will stop or whether it will keep bouncing. We don't yet know where it will end."

In an email to every Labour MP, Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon wrote that Labour parliamentary party "is deeply divided over the question of the leadership". Without a once-and-for-all ballot, they said, there was a risk that "persistent background briefing and grumbling" could continue through the general election campaign.

But they were hit by an immediate backlash from Labour MPs angry over the timing. One said: "I would have loved to get Gordon Brown out, but the moment has gone. The only thing we should be focusing on is the election."

A former minister said: "It's a waste of time unless they have any big names on board. The cabinet won't act -- they are a bunch of turnips."

Gordon Prentice, one of the few Labour MPs not to back Mr Brown's original leadership bid, said: "It is an absolute disgrace and it is destabilising."

During the afternoon, Mr Hoon was deluged with angry replies from backbenchers to his email, one denouncing his "egocentric agenda". Another said: "You have taken leave of your senses."

Downing Street aides insisted there was no significance in the delay in senior ministers swearing their loyalty to Mr Brown.

One stated: "If you had every cabinet minister appearing on College Green [in Westminster] the media would be talking about a panic."

A spokesman for the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, said: "No one should overreact to this initiative. It is not led by members of the government. No one has resigned from the government. The prime minister continues to have the support of his colleagues and we should carry on government business as usual." (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent