Cabinet almost backed our coup, rebel MPs claim

Miliband condemned for failing to seize chance to oust Brown
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Fresh doubts about Gordon Brown's authority surfaced last night as rebel Labour MPs claimed that most of his Cabinet came close to backing the attempted coup against him.

One ringleader of the revolt told The Independent: "My understanding was that only three or four Cabinet ministers were absolutely determined to die in the ditch for Gordon." Suggesting that Cabinet members were fomenting the revolt, the rebel MP said that: "We were asked to do something and we did it."

The ultra-loyalists in the 23-strong Cabinet were named as the Schools Secretary Ed Balls; the Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper; the Health Secretary Andy Burnham and the Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward.

They were among the first ministers to back the Prime Minister when former Cabinet members Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon launched the rebellion on Wednesday. Another Brown critic said: "You could work out their loyalty rating from how long it took them to support him."

The rebels' claims were dismissed by Cabinet ministers, who denied knowledge of the coup and blamed backbenchers for a lack of co-ordination and poor intelligence about ministers' views.

The Cabinet rallied more strongly behind Mr Brown yesterday after the short-lived coup collapsed. But the new allegations call into question whether the Prime Minister enjoys the wholehearted support of a majority of his Cabinet as Labour enters a four-month election campaign.

Amid an inquest into why the revolt failed, David Miliband's hopes of becoming Labour leader suffered a setback as he came under fire for not backing the backbench rebels.

Labour backbenchers and some ministers accused the Foreign Secretary of "dithering" and lacking courage. Although he may not have been alone in the Cabinet in doing so, critics accused Mr Miliband of "waiting to see which way the wind was blowing" after Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon called for a secret ballot of Labour MPs on the Brown leadership.

There was growing speculation among Labour MPs that he could be overtaken in the party's future leadership stakes by his younger brother Ed, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

Mr Brown's survival forced the Foreign Secretary into making a much stronger pledge of personal support for him yesterday than the half-hearted backing he gave on Wednesday, more than six hours after the putsch began. On Wednesday, Mr Miliband said: "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." Yesterday, he said: "We have an election to fight under Gordon's leadership. We are all determined to win under his leadership and are looking forward to the fight."

Allies of Mr Miliband insisted that the delay in supporting Mr Brown stemmed from a deliberate Cabinet strategy not to overreact to the revolt and to let it "fizzle out".

But one senior Labour figure claimed it was the third time Mr Miliband had "bottled out" of a chance to dislodge Mr Brown. In the summer of 2008, he made a coded criticism of the Prime Minister but failed to follow it through. Last June he declined to join his friend and ally James Purnell in resigning from the Cabinet – a move which could well have brought down the Prime Minister.

Eric Joyce, a former ministerial aide at the Ministry of Defence, said Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon would never have called for the ballot unless they had been egged on by senior figures. "It's quite destabilising for people to give hints to people like Geoff and Patricia," he said. "I think there are one or two aristocrats at the top end of the Labour Party who think if they act coy they may inherit the leadership."

The Cabinet will meet in Downing Street today for the first time since the crisis. Ministers are expected to close ranks behind Mr Brown and to acknowledge that the last chance of a change of leadership before the election has now passed.

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, who denied rebel claims that he was ready to back the ballot call, argued yesterday that the failed revolt could strengthen Mr Brown's position. "I actually think it will have the effect of bringing people behind his leadership even more," he said. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, said Mr Brown was the right man to lead Labour into a "very vigorous, very effective election campaign".