Gordon Brown clung on to his job as Prime Minister last night after another attempt by former ministers to oust him before the election appeared to fizzle out.
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. However, while Cabinet ministers eventually issued statements backing Mr Brown, some support seemed grudging. 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 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 6 May election.
In another blow to Mr Brown's authority, The Independent's 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 40 per cent, Labour on 29 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 19 per cent. 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 late last night, only seven other backbenchers had signed up to the demand – allowing leaders of the Parliamentary Labour Party to dismiss it.
Last night, there were suggestions that six prominent cabinet figures, named as Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander, Bob Ainsworth, David Miliband, Jim Murphy and Jack Straw, would have considered backing the secret ballot under the right circumstances. In the event, the Cabinet rallied behind the Prime Minister – but the backing of some ministers was lukewarm and some declarations of support took several hours – much longer than after James Purnell resigned as 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. "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.
Others were less than effusive about him in their statements. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary and a frontrunner to succeed Mr Brown, was the last leading Cabinet figure to speak out. However, when his intervention finally arrived six hours after the attempted coup had begun, he would only say 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." He refused to go any further in supporting the Prime Ministers when approached last night.
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 prominent rebel told The Independent last night: "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 the Parliamentary Labour 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 of the email. 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. If Hewitt and Hoon think this is helpful to the re-election of the Labour Party, then they are just delusional." One left-winger said: "Even if we had a smooth coronation of David Miliband or Alan Johnson, we would still struggle at the election to counter the impression of disarray in the Labour Party."
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."
Last night Mr Hoon's and Ms Hewitt's call had been backed only by the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, the former Welfare Reform minister Frank Field, the former Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart, the former Tourism minister Janet Anderson, the former Health minister Gisela Stuart, the Lewisham West MP Jim Dowd and the senior backbencher Barry Sheerman. Downing Street aides insisted that Mr Brown, who was told about the demand for a ballot shortly before Prime Minister's Question Time, would not be diverted by the attempted coup and had cancelled no meetings because of the backbench rumblings.
They also said that 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."
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "He is relaxed and getting on with his job as Prime Minister. He has a very busy schedule and as always is very focused on the key priorities in front of him."
The Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, contacted cabinet colleagues telling them not to overreact to the coup. "It is not led by members of the Government," he said. "No one has resigned from the Government."
Last night, he said the coup was a "monumental distraction" that quickly failed. "The party has reached a settled view – they want Gordon Brown to lead the party as Prime Minister into the next election."
Other Brown allies moved to shore up the Prime Minister's position last night after suggestions that some of the statements of support for the Prime Minister from cabinet ministers were far from convincing. Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary who also had a role in preparing the party's manifesto, said that Mr Brown had, "shown he can deliver for the British people".
Meanwhile, the former deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, attacked those calling for a ballot on Mr Brown's leadership. He said Mr Hoon, Mr Clarke and Ms Hewitt, who he labelled as the "Bitterites", should "face their own secret ballots" to gauge support from their local parties.
Leadership challenge: Rules of engagement
* Party rules stipulate at least 20 per cent of Labour MPs must support a challenge before it can proceed. That means 71 of Labour MPs supporting it.
* If Labour's leader is prime minister at the time and refuses to resign, a leadership election requires a majority vote at a party conference.
* Voting is carried out by an electoral college of unions, MPs and party members. Each group has a third of the vote and each member casts one vote.
* Rebels say the selection process could take less than a month, but Gordon Brown's allies pointed out that the party's constitution made no provision for a secret leadership ballot.