Coup is elephant in the corner at Cabinet meeting

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Indy Politics

The attempted coup against Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the great unmentionable at this morning's Cabinet meeting, where ministers went 90 minutes without uttering a single word about the plot which convulsed Westminster earlier this week.

Sitting around the Cabinet table in 10 Downing Street with six ministers who had been forced to deny having given tacit support to the plot, Mr Brown made no reference to the challenge to his authority from ex-ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt.

Instead, he urged ministers to apply a "laser focus" to the problems facing Britain, especially the challenge of dealing with the disruption caused by the extended period of unusually cold weather.

Asked by reporters whether the failed putsch was discussed at the weekly meeting, Mr Brown's spokesman replied: "Not at all, and nor would you expect it to be."

The spokesman described the meeting as businesslike and "collegiate", with a series of ministers making contributions on issues ranging from the disruption caused by snow to the failed Christmas Day bomb attack on a US-bound airliner and the Government's food strategy.

The Cabinet met as a poll for The Sun suggested that the attempt by Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt to force a secret ballot on Mr Brown's leadership has damaged Labour's standing with voters.

The YouGov survey, conducted after news of the plot emerged, put Labour on 30% - a point down on the party's score in a similar survey published by the newspaper just yesterday - with David Cameron's Conservatives rising two points to 42% - a lead of 12 points. The Liberal Democrats slipped one point to 16%.

A second poll for BBC2's Daily Politics found that while voters said, by a margin of 50% to 42%, that Labour would have "greater appeal" if Mr Brown stood aside, some 69% accepted that if he did so there were "no obvious more popular candidates".

The ComRes survey found 60% of those questioned thought Labour was the most divided of the main parties.

An upbeat Mr Brown yesterday laughed off the attempted putsch yesterday as "a storm in a teacup" but it has renewed intense speculation over the support he enjoys among senior colleagues.

Some faced criticism over their slow response to yesterday's plot and their apparently lukewarm expressions of support for the PM in the immediate aftermath.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband, seen by many as a potential successor, was among six ministers who have all denied a BBC report that they had offered tacit backing to the rebellion.

The regular weekly meeting was postponed from Tuesday to coincide with a planned regional tour of the south-west which was later cancelled because of the weather.

It comes as Mr Hoon faces local party bosses in his Nottinghamshire constituency over the bid to force a secret ballot of Labour MPs and peers on Mr Brown's leadership.

Activists were said by John Knight, the leader of Ashfield District Council, to be "shocked and disappointed" at his involvement and keen to pose "pertinent questions".

The MP is due at a regular meeting of the constituency party's general management committee.