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A very messy Labour coup

A raggle taggle group of backbenchers has put Gordon Brown's leadership back in the balance. Andrew Grice asks whether the Cabinet dare deliver the coup de grâce

"This is not a coup, it is a cry from the heart," one critic of Gordon Brown said yesterday as he explained why a dozen Labour backbenchers have suddenly called for the Prime Minister to face a leadership election.

The MPs have voiced in public what many of their colleagues have been saying for months in private – that Labour is sleepwalking to an electoral disaster under Mr Brown. The rebels fully admit that what Brown allies are dismissing as "a messy, botched coup" has not been well organised because they do not have a mastermind to pull the strings. They insist that it isn't really a coup because they have no alternative leader in mind.

They admit they are unlikely to succeed in triggering an election, which would require 70 named backers for a named candidate to challenge Mr Brown. Despite all that, they are unabashed. They hope that they have set in motion a train of events that will see the Prime Minister forced out of Downing Street by November. That will almost certainly require a cabinet mutiny – one of three scenarios discussed by the rebels. The others are: Mr Brown doing what John Major did in 1995 by subjecting himself to as "back me or sack me" leadership election (highly unlikely); or Labour limping to electoral disaster by neither backing him nor sacking him. The preferred option of most rebels is for senior cabinet ministers to tell Mr Brown his time is up, which they describe as "the least bloody".

Yesterday, the saga turned into a whodunnit that Agatha Christie would have been proud of. The mystery was: how did it become public on Friday that several Labour MPs had written private letters to party headquarters, asking for nomination forms for a leadership election to be sent out to MPs before Labour's annual conference in Manchester, which starts on Saturday. Brown loyalists accused them of leaking the information to keep Mr Brown's survival prospects in the spotlight just when it seemed he had won a breathing space.

On Friday morning, Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, reported on Radio 4's Today that the Prime Minister's position seemed more secure and a "weary resignation" had taken over his party. Three hours later, however, Sky News revealed that some Labour MPs had asked for nomination papers to be sent to MPs. The story did not set Westminster alight until it emerged on Friday afternoon that one of them was Siobhain McDonagh, a government whip. In a series of TV and radio interviews, Ms McDonagh insisted she had not wanted her action to become public.

The rebel MPs are convinced that Brown allies leaked the story in an attempt to "flush out" the rebels and clear the air by revealing they did not enjoy widespread support inside the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). "As far as I know, none of us leaked to the media that this attempt was occurring," said Frank Field, one of nine MPs who wrote to Labour HQ. "It appears that those close to the centre of government leaked this story in an attempt to smash the efforts to get a gauge of parliamentary opinion. That itself is pretty worrying – that you can't write in private to the Labour Party without the letters then being used as an attempt to thwart what I see as a quite legitimate objective."

A Brown aide sent Robinson a text message saying: "I hope you don't turn out to be the Michael Fish of the political world" – a reference to the BBC weatherman who famously told us there would not be a hurricane, just before Britain was hit by the Great Storm of 1987. By 7pm, Robinson was saying: "The curse of Robinson has struck. No sooner had I penned a piece saying the threat to Mr Brown had receded than the first call came from within the Government for a leadership contest."

The Brown camp is adamant that it did not light the touch paper now to prevent a more dangerously timed disclosure on the eve of the Manchester conference.

Whatever the provenance of the story, it gathered pace over the weekend. Joan Ryan, a former Home Office minister, took to the airwaves on Saturday to call for a leadership election – and was promptly sacked as a Labour vice-chairman. But other dissidents rallied to the cause, including Fiona Mactaggart, another former Home Office minister.

Inevitably, the presence of three women MPs in the front line of the revolt prompted headlines in yesterday's newspapers about "Blair babes" being transformed into "Brown's assassins". It was no coincidence that Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, was ordered to the TV studios to declare that her fellow women MPs had made a mistake.

Although Ms McDonagh is an arch-Blairite, the rebels insist their action is not a "Blairite plot" to unseat Mr Brown. Nor, they say, does the presence of North-west MPs such as Janet Anderson, Greg Pope, George Howarth and Graham Stringer in their ranks make them a "Lancashire mafia" plotting to install Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary and MP for Blackburn, as Prime Minister. He has personally rebuked one prominent rebel.

Some Brownites are suspicious, sensing that Blairites want to engineer the circumstances in which David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, could take over before the next general election. Brownites were intrigued by a reunion of Team Blair at Tony and Cherie Blair's housewarming barbecue in Buckinghamshire nine days ago. Those who attended insist the occasion was purely social and not an occasion for political gossip. That evening, however, Mr Blair talked to Mr Miliband at a birthday bash for Matthew Freud, the public relations guru who is married to Elisabeth Murdoch. Mr Miliband sat on Rupert Murdoch's table and chatted to the media magnate over dinner.

Some Brown allies could not resist comparing what they described as a "half-cock rebellion" with their own swift and ruthless revolt against Tony Blair two years ago, which forced him to announce his Downing Street departure timetable. Brownites organised round-robin letters by Labour backbenchers, followed by the resignation of the defence minister Tom Watson and several parliamentary aides.

The game may not be up for Mr Brown yet, but it could be the beginning of the end. "The lid of the PLP pressure cooker has been blown off," one former minister said last night. "Now, no one knows what will happen – not even Gordon."

The rebels

*Frank Field: former social security minister who clashed with Gordon Brown as chancellor. He described Mr Brown's energy plans last week as a "mouse of a proposal".

*Joan Ryan: MP for marginal Enfield North had an unhappy spell as a Home Office minister before being appointed a vice-chairman of the party by Gordon Brown.

*George Howarth (left): Former Home Office minister who confronted the Prime Minister during a stormy meeting last month. He said: "You are the problem. What are you going to do about it?"

*Barry Gardiner (right): Former minister at Northern Ireland, Trade and Industry and Environment. He left the Government last year and was made Mr Brown's envoy on forestry.

*Fiona Mactaggart: Former Home Office minister previously loyal to the Government and not previously seen as a critic of Gordon Brown. The Slough MP holds one of the few southern Labour seats outside the capital.

*Siobhain McDonagh: MP for Mitcham and Morden, once the cauldron of New Labour. Sister of former Labour general secretary Margaret McDonagh and a close ally of former home secretary John Reid. Has never voted against the Government in her 11 years in Parliament.