Tony Blair has been warned by his party that his unpopularity is dragging Labour down, for the first time in his 10-year leadership.
Staff at Labour's London headquarters have collated a summary of canvass returns from around the country, which reveal a "clear difference" between those who are prepared to vote Labour in next month's local elections, and those who say they will come back to Labour only when Mr Blair has ceased to be leader.
A senior party member who has seen the canvass returns told The Independent on Sunday: "The figures are awful. If there were a general election tomorrow, they suggest Blair could cost us at least 60 seats."
The growth of a negative "Blair factor" has added to speculation in Westminster that the Prime Minister may be on the point of handing over to his long-time friend and rival, Gordon Brown.
One former minister who has known both men well for nearly 20 years said: "Only two or possibly three people actually know the answer - that is Tony, Gordon and Cherie. But when I spoke to Gordon the other day, he did not look like a man who is expecting to wait another three years for the job he has always wanted."
Unusually, these rumours have been publicly aired by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who told The Times that people are "positioning themselves" for a seismic change in the political landscape. He added in a statement yesterday: "Of course there has been speculation over the leadership, but the reality is there's no race for the Prime Minister's position."
Others who work closely with the Prime Minister acknowledge that the Iraq war is likely to have a severe impact on the Labour vote in the local council and European Parliament elections on 10 June, but they are adamant that he intends to continue in office.
Pressure on Mr Blair increased last night as a poll revealed that 46 per cent of people said he should step down before the next election while a survey of Labour constituency chairmen found a fifth believed he should go.
However, a Downing Street spokesman said: "The Prime Minister is fully focused and firmly gripping the Iraq issue. He believes the key to sorting out Iraq is security, and the key to sorting out security is 'Iraqisation' - giving the Iraqis responsibility for resolving their own problems."
But even his most loyal allies are beginning to contemplate what to do if he does resign, and are showing a reluctance to let Mr Brown walk into the job without a challenge from a cabinet rival such as the Health Secretary, John Reid, or the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke. One leading Blairite said: "Were the worst to happen, which I don't think it will, the history of the Labour Party suggests that there would be a contest. I don't think the likes of Charles and John would take it lying down."
There are the beginnings of a Stop Brown campaign gathering in the lower ranks of government, led by ministers in highly marginal seats once held by Tories, who believe they owe their careers to Tony Blair's political skill.
Stephen Ladyman, a junior minister in the Department of Health who is nursing a majority of just 1,792 in South Thanet, says he will lose his seat if Mr Brown takes over.
He said: "Now is not the time to change horses. People in the South-east understand and trust Tony. Anyone else would not have as much in common with English voters."
Gareth Thomas, Harrow West (majority 6,156), agreed that the Prime Minister had "particular appeal in the South". He said: "Tony Blair was crucial in helping me win my seat in 1997 and in retaining it in 2001."Reuse content