Senior cabinet figures were desperately rallying around Gordon Brown yesterday, with the two men tipped as favourites to succeed Mr Brown moving to quash rumours that he could be replaced before the next election.
Both the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, and Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, said that Mr Brown was the right man to be leading the party and that they did not want the top job. Their endorsements came after the first tensions from within the Cabinet emerged over Mr Brown's leadership.
Hazel Blears, the Communities Secretary, had described the Government's performance under Mr Brown as "lamentable", adding that it needed to be more "human". Mr Brown's decision to block the right of thousands of former Gurkhas to settle in Britain had put the Government "on the wrong side of the British sense of fair play, and no party can stay there for long without dire consequences," she said. A Commons defeat over the plan was swiftly followed by the embarrassing abandonment of Mr Brown's reforms to MPs' expenses.
Mr Brown now faces pressure to scrap plans to part-privatise Royal Mail. A vote on the reforms had been planned after the local and European elections in June, but with more than 100 Labour MPs opposing the plan, Mr Brown could be defeated. The Government has denied that plans are afoot to abandon the reforms.
Mr Johnson, tipped as a possible unity candidate should Mr Brown be forced out, said he had no aspirations for the leadership, adding that Mr Brown was the right man "for these times". But he was careful not to rule out the possibility. "I am not saying there are no circumstances," he told the BBC. "I am not driven by this ambition. I want to be part of a good Government and I want it to be led by Gordon Brown."
In the past, Mr Johnson has said he believed he did not have the ability to lead his party, stating: "I don't think I would have been good enough, frankly. I don't think I've got the capabilities."
It has prompted suspicions that Mr Johnson may feel obliged to take on the leadership should his party ask him in the future. The former Labour mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, also backed Mr Johnson as the next leader, adding that Labour would perform better at the next election if the Health Secretary took over now.
Mr Straw, seen as one of the few senior figures with the profile to take the party into an election, said Mr Brown was "exactly the right person to be Prime Minister". He told Sky News: "There's not a vacancy and Gordon Brown is clearly the leader. If there were [a vacancy], I would not be standing. I've been pretty clear about that."
Even most in the party who oppose Mr Brown admit it is unlikely he will be deposed before the next election, but believe the question of a change in leader will resurface after the local and European elections, during which Labour looks set for a drubbing.
In her article, Ms Blears also appeared to criticise the Prime Minister's use of YouTube to broadcast his proposed reforms for MPs' expenses. Mr Brown's video has been widely lampooned for his stilted manner and oddly timed smiles. "YouTube if you want to," she said. "But it is no substitute for knocking on doors or setting up a stall in the town centre."
After speaking to Mr Brown by phone on Saturday, Ms Blears rushed out a statement, saying she wanted "to make it clear that the Prime Minister enjoys my 100 per cent support. Any suggestion that I intended what I wrote as criticism of him or his leadership is completely wrong."
Downing Street was angered by Ms Blears's intervention, but Mr Brown's aides are hoping her "clarification" will end the spat. "It was a good thing she was able to clarify what she meant as quickly as she did and as clearly as she did," said a Downing Street source. "Clearly her words were being misinterpreted. The important thing is she took steps to change that."
But rumblings from backbenchers over Mr Brown continued, with one saying he had been "mortally damaged". Some wild ideas are being punted around, such as the possibility of left-wing backbencher Gordon Prentice running as a stalking horse candidate. "He is thoughtful, popular, and would get support," said one admirer.