A Government minister has warned Gordon Brown that he must stop being timid and show stronger leadership if he is to revive his faltering premiership.
In the first direct criticism of Mr Brown by a minister since last week's Glasgow East by-election, the Health minister Ivan Lewis told The Independent: "The only way forward now is bold Labour. What we want to see is the Gordon Brown of Bank of England independence, SureStart and Make Poverty History. I think that his responsibility is to provide the bold and decisive leadership that we now need." He added that it was then the responsibility of the Labour Party as a whole to be "loyal and disciplined".
In the interview, Mr Lewis said that Labour's defeat in Glasgow "confirmed my view that timidity and incremental change will not deal with the way people feel right now." He urged Mr Brown to raise taxes for high earners so that they could in turn be cut for hard-pressed low- and middle-income groups struggling in the economic downturn. He also wants the Government to consider a windfall tax on energy companies, with the money raised used to tackle fuel poverty.
His remarkably candid assessment of Labour's problems will increase the pressure on Mr Brown to produce a wide-ranging package of measures to help people cope with rising fuel, food and housing costs when he launches his attempted fightback in September.
Last night the crisis engulfing Mr Brown deepened as his allies hit back at David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, over a newspaper article yesterday that was widely seen a prelude to a possible Labour leadership election.
Furious Brownites said Mr Miliband failed to quell such speculation at a press conference yesterday, although the Foreign Secretary said Mr Brown has the "values and the vision" to run the country successfully. "Can Gordon lead us into the next election and win? Yes, I'm absolutely certain about that," he added. Asked if he was planning a leadership bid, Mr Miliband said: "No, I'm not campaigning for anything other than a successful Labour government. The truth is we had a very bad result in the Glasgow by-election. I was frustrated by the sense of fatalism that had imbued in parts of the media and the Labour Party... Gordon will lead us forward and the rest of us have a contribution to make.
One Labour MP close to Mr Brown said: "David Miliband is letting his ego and his ambition cloud his judgement. If his intention was to focus on the Tories and get away from internal squabbling, he has succeeded in doing the exact opposite."
Mr Lewis's call to "be bold" echoes Mr Brown's criticism of Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. At the 2003 Labour conference, Mr Brown declared: "This Labour Party [is] best when we are boldest, best when we are united, best when we are Labour."
Mr Lewis believes that Mr Brown has been too cautious. "If we as a government are going to be given permission to talk to people about the other issues that matter, we have got to reassure people – through actions not words – that we are on their side," he said. Insisting that Mr Brown could still lead Labour to an election victory, he said the party would lose unless it helped people through the economic storm and showed "a new idealism, purpose and passion". He said the fightback should be based on fairness, opportunity and community. Although he opposed punitive tax rises out of "dogma or ideology", he called for tax changes to protect "the quality of life" of people on low and middle incomes during the economic squeeze.
Mr Lewis added: "We are not here to be a bunch of technocrats. I joined the Labour Party, like most of my colleagues, because I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to change the world for the better. And obviously I wanted to do that in a way that was consistent with progressive values. How many people out there really believe any more that that's what people like me are about? That's what we need to turn around."
If Labour failed to do so, "the seductive, 'it's time for a change' message will work for Mr Cameron. We need to be the change... more of the same won't do." Asked if his fellow ministers were loyal to Mr Brown, he replied: "The test of any political party, any cause, is in the bad time and not the good time. We now face the ultimate test. People have a decision to make. But there's one thing that's absolutely clear, it's that the public don't vote for divided parties."
On whether Mr Brown would lead Labour into the election, Mr Lewis said: "I expect that will be the case, and we've got to believe – if we don't believe that we can still win, how do we expect the electorate to believe that?"
He added: "When you're the underdog, you have a choice – you can either lie down and die, or you can come out fighting with a passion and a purpose, which stirs your friends and shakes the confidence of your opponents. We have to recognise that New Labour has a problem now with definition. Old Labour doesn't have answers, and therefore the only way forward right now is bold Labour."