Another damp squib, or the start of a real challenge?

Brown back on familiar territory amid new backbench unrest, but this time it could be serious. By Brian Brady and Jane Merrick

Gordon Brown last night tried to stamp out an attempted leadership coup by denying MPs the right to vote on whether he should keep his job.

As a number of MPs openly joined calls for a leadership contest, the Prime Minister used the full weight of the party machinery to prevent nomination papers being issued to all members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) before next week's annual conference in Manchester.

Mr Brown also slapped down the rebel MP Joan Ryan by sacking her as his envoy to Cyprus and as party vice-chair after she backed the Blairite former whip Siobhain McDonagh. Ms McDonagh was forced out of the Government on Friday after urging the party to issue leadership nomination forms.

Despite the Government's insistence that the critics were individuals bearing grudges against the leadership, four former Labour ministers and a fifth MP joined the rebellion. The Labour MPs Fiona Mactaggart, George Howarth, Graham Stringer, Gordon Prentice and Janet Anderson yesterday confirmed they had written to the party asking for nomination papers to be sent out. A number of fellow backbenchers are expected to support their call, including Peter Kilfoyle, Greg Pope and Jim Dowd, all former ministers.

The attempted coup appeared to involve MPs from the Blairite wing of the party, who want the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to be leader, and a number of backbenchers loyal to the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw.

Insiders suggested they were banding together because they could not separately amass the 71 names needed to force a contest. The factions would then fall behind their candidates, it was alleged. Mr Straw "completely and categorically" denied any involvement.

It also emerged that the rebels had been organising their strike for several weeks, and had agreed on a coordinated strategy to unseat Mr Brown as he struggled to revive his flagging premiership.

"What they really want is for a number of the most senior members of the Cabinet to approach Gordon and tell him the game's up," said one former minister who was involved in discussions with the rebels.

The moves coincided with an article in Progress magazine by 12 MPs, including Patricia Hewitt, the former cabinet minister, warning that the Government was suffering "malaise" under Mr Brown.

There were signs that the rebels had their hand forced by Downing Street in an attempt to flush them out before the party conference.

Ms Ryan denied she was part of a "plot or a conspiracy", but said "a number of MPs" had expressed concerns to her. "I think that in order to serve our constituents properly to the best of our ability ... and to ensure that we have the best way forward to deal with those big issues, we need to have this debate about the direction and leadership of our country out in the open now," she said.

However, Labour's general secretary, Ray Collins, rejected the demand for nomination papers, pointing to rules adopted since Labour came to power in 1997. In a letter to MPs, he said that when the party was in government it could hold a leadership election only if one was requested by a majority at the party conference on a card vote. A vote could be triggered only if at least 20 per cent of the PLP requested one, and named a candidate.

Mr Collins added: "As the party has followed this procedure for the last 11 years, I am confident that most members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are fully aware of their special responsibilities under rule to trigger the process which has not required the issue of nominations forms.

"I have a clear responsibility to ensure that the party follows the procedures adopted by all my predecessors in respect of leadership elections when in government."

Government insiders last night sought to play down the significance of the revolt, claiming it was a disorganised move by disgrun-tled former ministers.

A Downing Street source said: "We take some comfort that this is just a handful of backbenchers who have a grudge against Gordon and wish they still had a job in government. Labour Party members will not thank them for coming up with this distraction in the days before an important party conference."

The sense that the attempted coup was helped by leading Blairites was fuelled after Tony Blair's former press secretary, David Hill, told Channel 4 News on Thursday that "Gordon has let the grass grow under his feet, where he could have been setting out his vision, which he told us he was going to do almost a year ago and has not yet done."

The attack dogs: making a name for themselves

Siobhain McDonagh

A Blairite whose sister is the former Labour general secretary Baroness (Margaret) McDonagh, the MP for Mitcham and Morden wrote to the Chief Whip, Geoff Hoon, 10 days ago to request nomination papers. Her name was leaked to Sky News on Friday; she was sacked as assistant whip within hours.

Graham Stringer

The MP for Manchester Blackley and a supporter of Jack Straw, Mr Stringer was the first backbencher to call for a leadership contest, as early as May this year. He has predicted that more letters will be presented at the Labour Party conference.

Janet Anderson

A former culture minister under Tony Blair who is a supporter of Mr Straw, the MP for Rossendale and Darwen also signed an article in 'Progress' magazine warning of a "malaise" under Gordon Brown and saying that Labour would face a "hammer blow" at the next election.

Joan Ryan

A Blairite who is close to the former home secretary John Reid and close friends with Ms McDonagh, the MP for Enfield North was sacked yesterday as Mr Brown's personal envoy to Cyprus and Labour vice-chair after calling for a leadership contest.

George Howarth

Last month it emerged that the MP for Knowsley North and a supporter of Jack Straw was compiling a list of MPs who would want a contest. He denied he was acting on behalf of the Justice Secretary.

Fiona Mactaggart

The disaffected independent-minded MP for Slough is neither in the Blairite camp nor the Straw camp. She was sacked as Home Office minister by Tony Blair in 2005.

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