No one can do any worse than Gordon, says minister

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Indy Politics

There was a vast gulf between the public smiles and private despair as Gordon Brown and his senior ministers tried to pick their party's morale up from the floor after Labour's catastrophic defeat in Glasgow East.

Behind the show of unity at Labour's crunch policy forum in Warwick, the party faithful knew the Prime Minister's position was grim – and worsening.

Mr Brown forced a smile as he delivered a half-hour sermon without notes on the global economy to delegates. But as he spoke, they shifted awkwardly in their seats and exchanged worried glances as the scale of the Glasgow disaster sank in.

After the dutiful ovation died down, cabinet ministers trooped out to put the best gloss on the drubbing. But their real feelings were all too close to the surface as it became clear that the result had dealt a potentially fatal blow to Mr Brown's hopes of clinging on to office.

Outside the Warwick University conference centre, John Hutton, the Business Secretary, was momentarily lost for words when he was asked if the result was a tipping point for the Prime Minister. "It's a very bad result," he said, before launching into a defence of the Government's record.

Mr Brown's bullish show was a far cry from his ashen-faced demeanour away from the media as he boarded the delayed 14.20 train back to London. Even as he returned to the capital to meet the American presidential candidate Barack Obama today, newspaper billboards screamed "humiliation". Even senior government aides were admitting that the Prime Minister's days may be numbered. Asked if Mr Brown could be forced out before the general election, one influential party figure said it was "more likely after Glasgow" – but warned that ousting Mr Brown could lead to "civil war".

As private donors have deserted Labour, the party has had to resort to the unions to bail it out of its financial crisis. These now provide 90 per cent of the money that enters the party's coffers. Most union leaders at Warwick were pleased with the Prime Minister's speech, but there was significant discontent in some quarters. The GMB leader, Paul Kenny, urged Labour MPs to remove the Prime Minister, while the Manchester MP Graham Stringer, a long-standing critic, pleaded with cabinet ministers to tell him to step down.

The Labour economist Lord Desai likened Mr Brown's premiership to a "crash in slow motion". Other MPs were equally gloomy, several declaring that the Glasgow result had tipped the balance in favour of dropping Mr Brown.

One minister said: "It's become clear that no one can do any worse than Gordon. If it's happening in Scotland, what chance do we have in London and the South-east? The challenge is how to bring about a change without someone getting their hands dirty." He said no figure in the party stood out as a replacement, but favoured either Alan Johnson or David Miliband. He added: "My fear is that Harriet [Harman] thinks this is her big chance, but she doesn't have the appeal."

One Midlands MP also vouched for Mr Johnson or Mr Miliband. He said: "David has potentially got the Obama-factor. Alan is a street-fighter with an impeccable background."

Other MPs insisted it would be "mad" to replace Mr Brown. One said: "If we do try to change the leader we will have to have a general election. If we call an election we will lose it badly. It's a question of limping along."

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