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Cabinet backs Brown but 'Lancashire plot' sparks open warfare

Cabinet attempts to shore up Gordon Brown's crumbling leadership suffered a fresh setback as senior MPs called openly for him to resign.

A "Lancashire plot" against the Prime Minister appeared to be gathering pace as two backbenchers from the North-west of England urged him to step down and a third questioned his survival chances.

Some MPs are also arguing that he should be replaced in spring if Labour's poll ratings have not recovered by the new year. The onslaught sparked fears among Brown allies that the trickle of demands could become a flood before September's Labour conference.

Senior ministers have closed ranks around Mr Brown, insisting he is better suited to steering Britain through economic turbulence than anyone else.

But Gordon Prentice, the MP for Pendle, broke ranks to call for the Prime Minister to make way for a rival more in tune with voters.

He said: "A prime minister needs a different set of skills from a chancellor of the exchequer. A prime minister must be able to persuade and enthuse. If not, the message is lost.

"I hope Gordon reflects during August and accepts it is in the party's interests, perhaps his own, to stand down. You have got to be able to paint a picture, moti-vate people. I do not think Gordon has those skills."

Graham Stringer, MP for Manchester Blackley, has said Labour "could not go on" as it has after its crushing by-election defeat in the Glasgow East by-election and called on the Cabinet to consider forcing a leadership challenge. George Howarth, the MP for Knowsley North and Sefton East, denied trying to rally support for Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, to replace Mr Brown.

But he warned that the "PM's role has to be up for discussion" as the party considered "why we have so much lost touch with the electorate, even in so-called heartlands constituencies".

Tony Lloyd, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, insisted Mr Prentice's views were not shared by most of his backbench colleagues, but admitted the Government needed to "sharpen up" efforts to get its message across.

As Mr Brown began his summer break in Suffolk, a succession of ministers tried to lower the temperature among MPs. Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said: "Gordon Brown is proving himself as a prime minister in difficult times and should have the support of all of us."

She warned dissident MPs: "We can either talk among ourselves or talk to the public about what they are concerned about."

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister who has a majority of just 97 in Harlow, Essex, also insisted that it would be a mistake to replace Mr Brown.

But a London MP said: "We are in deep trouble and I don't see how we can get out of it. But I don't think we should contemplate a change of leader until next year. I have a very high opinion of David Miliband. We've got to go to a younger person, not an older retread."