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Ministers deny plot to oust Brown – and call for unity

Senior cabinet ministers were forced to quash rumours of a plot to replace Gordon Brown as Prime Minister as they yesterday insisted that the Labour Party needed to rally round its leader.

The two senior Blairite figures tipped as possible successors to Mr Brown both strongly denied any attempt to oust Mr Brown, declaring that he was the right man to lead Britain despite widespread unease in the party at Labour's drubbing in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election.

As nervous Labour MPs continued to demand a sharp change in direction from the Government to turn its fortunes around, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, dismissed as "fiction" claims that he was manoeuvring to replace Mr Brown.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health and a man seen as a possible successor to Mr Brown, also rejected any suggestion of him replacing him.

Geoff Hoon, the Chief Whip, took to the airwaves amid claims of up to 40 MPs being prepared to call for Mr Brown's removal. Mr Hoon insisted that he "did not recognise" reports that he told a conference call of cabinet ministers that "we have to look at addressing the issues around the leadership".

Acknowledging criticism of Mr Brown's public performance, Mr Johnson admitted that Mr Brown was not "lights, camera action" but said: "There is absolutely no appetite, I believe, in the party to change the leader. Gordon Brown was the towering figure a year ago and is the towering figure in the party now."

He told the BBC that Labour was "going through some really rocky times at the moment. We've got an opposition that's been re-invigorated. We've never faced as formidable opponent as Cameron. This is a more difficult job than it's ever been and I think Gordon has the strength, the courage and the ideas to deal with those issues."

Mr Miliband denied reports he was preparing to challenge Mr Brown, telling Sky News: "There's fiction and there's reality. And the reality is that the Government has taken some beatings but the test is do we have the character and the grit and then the policies and the vision to go forward. I believe we do. That's what we've all got to get down to."

But asked if he would stand if Mr Brown stepped down, he replied: "I'm not in the market for any job other than the one I've got."

John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, also moved to bolster Mr Brown's position.

He said voters had given Labour "a kick in the backside" but warned his colleagues: "We are in a real fight now, we need to take on the Tories and I hope the party and the MPs will get together and address themselves to that fight."

There was still evidence of turmoil in the party yesterday as the millionaire Labour donor Lord Paul used an interview to call for a snap reshuffle, insisting: "Gordon has to exert his authority further. He must change some of the people".

Frank Field, the former welfare minister who led the revolt over Mr Brown's abolition of the 10p tax rate, also intervened, calling on the Prime Minister to recall the Blairite heavy-hitters Charles Clarke, Alan Milburn and David Blunkett to the Cabinet.

John Cruddas, the former Downing Street advisor, told The Independent on Sunday that the Government needed two or three simple messages. He said: "It is not about initiatives; it is about having a robust story in simple language about the concerns that people have."