Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, has not ruled out standing for Labour's leadership if Gordon Brown is forced to stand down.
Allies of Mr Johnson have dismissed reports that he would back David Miliband as part of a "dream ticket", and have been quietly reassuring Labour MPs, trade unionists and activists on the margins of the party conference that he has not struck a deal to step to one side in the event of a leadership contest. He has come under growing pressure this week to run for the top job.
Speculation that Mr Johnson would back David Miliband was prompted by his praise for the Foreign Secretary at the weekend. Of the leadership, Mr Johnson said: "I haven't any false modesty but I don't aspire to that job."
Friends say his remarks have been misinterpreted, he is not manoeuvring against Mr Brown and was among the ministers to rally strongly behind him at a cabinet meeting last week, when some members questioned his strategy. Mr Johnson believes this is not the time to raise the leadership issue and Mr Brown needs time to revive Labour.
But while not actively seeking the leadership, the Health Secretary would consider his position if Mr Brown stands down. One close ally told The Independent: "Some people thought he was saying there was a deal and a 'dream ticket' with David Miliband but that is not the case. He did not say he would not run or that he would support David." Another Johnson ally said: "His approach is 'never say never'."
Some of the 12 rebel Labour MPs who have demanded a leadership election would back Mr Johnson. They believe the former postman, brought up by his sister after his parents died, has a good "life story" which would enable Labour to fight the resurgent Tories. One said: "He would be the perfect antidote to David Cameron. He would reach parts of the electorate others couldn't reach."
Although Mr Miliband remains the front-runner if Mr Brown departs, critics of the Foreign Secretary say he failed to enhance his claims as a future leader in his conference speech on Monday. They also seized on reports that he allegedly remarked that he had toned down his speech to avoid a "Heseltine moment" – meaning Michael Heseltine's attempts to oust Margaret Thatcher. Yesterday Mr Miliband dismissed the BBC's report about his Heseltine remark as "hearsay", insisting: "I do not accept the allegations."
Lord Heseltine agreed Mr Miliband was right not to want to be seen to strike at the leader. "He who wields the knife never wears the crown," he said.