Sir Menzies Campbell was yesterday battling to quash "idle chatter" undermining his leadership of the Liberal Democrats as senior figures in the party were suggesting he had been given six months to shape up or ship out.
Last night, Lib Dem sources indicated senior MPs were setting a deadline of March for him to improve his current low poll ratings or "make a dignified exit". Senior figures are keen to prevent "panic" among MPs in marginal seats who have been shaken by a string of opinion poll ratings showing the party trailing Labour and the Tories.
A poll yesterday found that 44 per cent of Lib Dem voters in crucial marginal seats believe Gordon Brown would make a better prime minister, and Simon Hughes, a defeated leadership candidate last year, will warn in an interview today that Sir Menzies has to raise his game.
Mr Hughes, who himself fought Sir Menzies in the last leadership contest, will appear today on GMTV and say: "The leader obviously has to do better, get better at getting the message across better, at getting the policy out better." Pressure has increased on the 66-year-old party leader since Gordon Brown announced last weekend that there would be no early election – and indicated that the country would have to wait another two years before going to the polls.
One senior figure said Mr Hughes's remarks "have lit the touchpaper" on the leadership challenge and called for Sir Menzies to go in a dignified way. "It's either a slow and bloody exit or getting it over quickly," he said. "It's over. He is past the point of no return."
Another figure said: "I think we should all calm down and wait until February or March . If things are not improving then, let's look at things again."
Two rising Lib Dem stars, environment spokesman Chris Huhne and home affairs spokesman Nick Clegg, have both ruled out standing against their leader.
But one senior Lib Dem peer said: "The whole situation has changed now the election has been put off. We need to think whether Nick or Chris should take over before the next election." One senior MP said: "Among some people there is panic. It is not a sensible way to behave."
But Sir Menzies used a speech to grass-roots supporters to reaffirm his pledge to lead the party into the next general election after Lib Dem president Simon Hughes warned he must raise his game. Addressing the party's eastern region conference, he dismissed suggestions that the Lib Dems were being squeezed out by Mr Cameron's Conservatives.
Sir Menzies acknowledged to party members at the gathering in Mildenhall, Suffolk, that the Lib Dems had picked up "a few critics in the media".
But he went on: "I answer to you and not the media. I want to tell you that I have the energy, the ideas and the determination to lead this party into the next general election and beyond.
"We will campaign on the issues that matter to people – climate change, council tax, tuition fees and free long-term care for the elderly, and Iraq. These are things that matter to people – not the idle chatter of the occasional dissident."
His comments follow Mr Hughes's indication of growing impatience with Sir Menzies' performance. The scale of the challenge facing him is laid bare by a survey suggesting only a quarter of those who intend to vote for his party would want him in No 10.