Gordon Brown will reject calls from Labour MPs for him to sack David Miliband after he refused to pledge his unqualified support for the Prime Minister.
The Foreign Secretary was accused of disloyalty by two Labour backbenchers after he stopped short of saying Mr Brown should lead Labour into the next general election.
Speculation that Mr Miliband was positioning himself for a possible Labour leadership election was fuelled when he postponed a four-day trip to India at the start of next month – when critics of Mr Brown may mount an attempt to force him to stand down. But friends dismissed talk of a plot as "rubbish," saying the visit had never been set in stone and that Mr Miliband would be attending cabinet meetings that week.
Mr Brown is said to be irritated by the controversy sparked by a newspaper article by Mr Miliband, widely seen as putting down a marker for a leadership contest. But the Prime Minister now wants to draw a line under the affair. His spokesman said last night: "As we said yesterday, we agree with David that the whole party should pull together, take the fight to the Tories and focus on dealing with the real issues affecting people's lives."
Mr Miliband denied he was challenging Mr Brown. He told BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show: "I am not running a leadership campaign. I have always wanted to support Gordon's leadership." Asked if the Prime Minister could "hang on", he replied: "Yes, of course. Look, this leader of the Labour Party has got huge experience, he has got good values." He refused to say that Labour would win the next election, saying that would sound complacent and arrogant.
Brown allies were dismayed that Mr Miliband referred to the "beatings" suffered by Labour in recent times, while talking up the need for "change". However, sacking him could play into the Foreign Secretary's hands, since he would be free to criticise Mr Brown and to try to mount a formal leadership challenge.
A poll last night indicated that a change in leader would not help Labour win the next election. A YouGov poll in The Daily Telegraph said that while only 15 per cent of people questioned believed Brown was "up to the job", neither Mr Miliband or any other likely replacements would make any difference.
The Labour MP Geraldine Smith accused Mr Miliband of trying to " stir things up" and said his behaviour was "totally unacceptable". She said he should be sacked and return to the backbenches as a "nonentity". "What has Mr Miliband ever achieved apart from furthering his own career?" she asked.
Bob Marshall-Andrews, another backbencher, accused Mr Miliband of "pretty contemptible politics" and said his behaviour was "duplicitous". He added that Mr Brown would look indecisive if he did not dismiss the Foreign Secretary.
Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister, called for an end to attacks on Mr Miliband by Brown allies. He said: "The national interest is now being damaged by these anonymous attacks on Miliband."
Mr Miliband said: "I think the worst thing at the moment would be if we all went mute. I think it's right that we say that, sure we've taken some hits, but actually we've got ideas about the future of the country."
Views from the blogs
Our achievements have been buried while Cameron with his glass jaw bounds about untouched.
Doctor Dunc – Labour Home
There has to be a more moderate candidate who can retain a broader appeal.
Krindlekrax – Labour Home
It will be no good electing someone who will just continue the same policy line but look better on television.
Radford Mann – Labour Home
The reason why Brown was the wrong choice was because he did not represent a new direction.
Duncan Hall – Labour Left Forum
Changing PM means an interregnum during the election which will do major harm to the money markets.
Crosslander – Labour HomeReuse content