Gordon Brown vowed yesterday that he would hold on in Downing Street, no matter how bad this week's election results are for Labour.
Labour MPs return to the Commons in a grim frame of mind today after the half-term break. Opinion polls and their own canvassing suggest they are in for their worst drubbing in any election for a generation.
But the Prime Minister delivered his answer in advance to any group of ministers who may be thinking of visiting him once the votes have been counted to plead with him to resign for the party's sake. That answer is "No".
He made it clear he was determined to stay on in the hope he is able to guide the UK out of recession and introduce constitutional reforms, including a mandatory code of conduct for MPs.
"I'm dealing with the issues at hand. I'm dealing with the economy every day. I'm spending my time with the Chancellor," he said yesterday. "I'm also dealing with these constitutional issues. And I'm leading a debate on that, but it's got to be thought through. There cannot be gimmicks. It's got to be serious, it's got to be ordered and it's got to be done in a calm way."
Two cabinet ministers – one an old ally, the other an old enemy – gave the Prime Minister their public backing, but there was silence from the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, who is seen as Mr Brown's most likely successor. Mr Johnson is not expected to give interviews until after Thursday's European and local elections. Friends indicated he is willing to step in to replace Mr Brown but he does not want to be involved in plots to oust him.
Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary and former Brown enemy, said Mr Brown had a stature unmatched by any putative successor. "I certainly don't see anyone in the House of Commons who can rival his determination, his grasp, his grip of what needs to be done to get through this global economic recession, and I think you will find him well judged by the results," he told The Politics Show on BBC 1.
The Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, a Brown ally, told Sky News he believed Mr Brown should lead Labour through next year's general election. "The question of the election will be: have we made the right decisions to get Britain out of recession, and I think we have; and who's got the economic vision for the future, and I think we have."
But his brother David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, looked upon as last year's Prime Minister-in-waiting, fired a warning shot across Mr Brown's bows, telling him he could not afford to delay constitutional reform. "I don't care what system we have so long as it is clear, open and credible with the public – and we have to get it done quickly," he said in The News of the World.
Mr Brown is expected to try to seize the initiative after the elections by reshuffling his Cabinet. There is speculation that he will sack the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, who has been em-broiled in the expenses scandal. The pressure is mounting on Mr Darling, with allegations in The Daily Telegraph that he was claiming second-hone allowances on two properties at the same time. He claimed for a £1,004 service charge on his south London flat, which covered the entirety of 2007, even though from July of that year he was claiming second-home allowances on his grace-and-favour Downing Street apartment. From September the flat was being rented. The Communities Secretary, Hazel Blears, is another likely casualty. Mr Brown's preferred choice to succeed Mr Darling would be Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, who was his adviser at the Treasury for years. But promoting him would risk a reaction among Blairites.
Responding to public anger over MPs' expenses, Mr Brown promised "major and surgical constitutional changes" to clean up the Commons and other institutions, including the House of Lords, the NHS and the BBC. He told BBC 1's Andrew Marr Show that the abuses revealed in the MPs'expenses claims had offended his "Presbyterian conscience". He plans a constitutional reform Bill to introduce a legally-binding code of conduct for MPs. Reforms may include fixed parliamentary terms, a written constitution, voting reforms, extending Freedom of Information and Lords modernisation. Mr Brown launched his fightback against some of the worst opinion poll ratings his party has ever suffered.