Brown: Battening down the hatches

A year ago, Gordon Brown was embracing the 'big tent' approach. Now, mired in trouble, he has reverted to his inner circle. By Jane Merrick and Brian Brady

It was one of the big ideas of Gordon Brown's new premiership: to counter claims that he was a control freak by creating a "government of all the talents". Members of other political parties were drafted in to carry out policy reviews; non-politicians were appointed ministers for their expertise in the NHS and defence, while the famously tight-knit inner circle around Mr Brown was loosened as PR and advertising experts were given desks inside No 10.

But little more than a year later, the Prime Minister appears to have closed the big tent to outsiders and is once again relying on a trusted inner circle in his battle for survival.

The person leading the negotiations with energy companies to help families with fuel bills is not the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, but someone Mr Brown regards as more in tune with his thinking, the Business minister, Baroness Shriti Vadera.

Inside Downing Street, Stephen Carter, the PR chief derided for "not being political enough", is being sidelined in favour of Mr Brown's long-serving aides.

Mr Brown appears to be streamlining his operation, returning to a position of "command and control", as he enters what could be the closing stages of his fight with Labour.

The attempted "relaunch" of Mr Brown's premiership last week was blown off course by Mr Darling's doom-laden warning on the economy and Mr Carter falling out of favour in No 10. The announcement of a stamp duty holiday was overshadowed by the news that the Government has failed to convince energy suppliers to fund one-off payments for poor households. It was merely the latest of the Brown camp's failed attempts to manage difficult stories. (See box.)

Yet a call from Charles Clarke for the Prime Minister to "stand down with honour" if Labour's situation does not improve failed to gain momentum among MPs. Perversely, Mr Clarke provided comfort for Downing Street by admitting that cabinet ministers were not yet poised to oust Mr Brown.

But there are more dangers lying in wait. The unions will step up pressure for a windfall tax on energy firms at the TUC conference this week; Labour's party conference will be dominated by questions over Mr Brown's leadership; and the party is likely to lose Glenrothes.

And as with all coups, the element of surprise is key. While cabinet ministers are not ready to tell Mr Brown to step aside, this method remains the most likely option. Jack Straw, one minister who could tell the Prime Minister the game is up, last week insisted there would be "no leadership challenge", but observers pointed out that he was not asked whether there would be a "men in grey suits" moment.

Deputy Leader Harriet Harman gave an ambiguous response to this question in an interview with yesterday's Times. Asked whether any MPs had suggested she should be the "grey suit", she replied: "I am not going to answer that question."

By Christmas, many on both sides acknowledge, either the Prime Minister will be out or rebels will call a truce. "We can't continue like this in 2009," said one MP. "This will be settled one way or the other. If Gordon Brown is still in Downing Street at Christmas, then we have to accept we have him until the next election."

A senior aide to the Prime Minister said: "We know the threat hasn't gone away. But it's about more than one week. There are measures on energy and the economy to come."

The comments of Mr Clarke and of Mr Darling, who said Britain is facing economic conditions not seen for 60 years, appear to have united many Labour MPs. Some believe that a party at war with itself during its conference in Manchester later this month will outrage voters.

At a regional meeting of Labour Party activists last week, someone suggested introducing the death penalty for MPs who speak out against the leader. While the jibe, aimed at Mr Clarke, was tongue in cheek, supporters of Mr Brown claimed it reflected the deep anger among Labour's grass roots at the former home secretary's comments.

Even among Mr Clarke's fellow travellers, there was little enthusiasm for going over the top to join their colleague in a fight for the Blairite succession. Former health secretary Alan Milburn resolutely refused to get involved. It remains likely that, despite his protestations that he is not alone in his anxiety over Mr Brown, Mr Clarke will be on his own in expressing it.

"It is clear that Charles just got so frustrated at the situation that he couldn't hold back any longer," a source close to Mr Milburn said. "He might have thought it was a strategic move, building up a head of steam before the conference, but no one else saw it like that. He was definitely a lone gunman."

The polls suggest, however, that Mr Clarke might have some support in the country: Tony Blair is the only senior figure that could save Labour from defeat at the next election.

A ComRes poll in The Independent yesterday showed none of the ministers tipped as possible successors would fare better than Mr Brown.