The dartboard coup that missed its target

Labour's rebels called it the dartboard strategy – a small circle of insurgents would target Gordon Brown in the hope that another 120 would join the game

Gordon Brown could finally relax for a few precious minutes. After surviving a highly-charged meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night, the Prime Minister headed for his Commons room in a corridor behind the Speaker's chair.

He sat down, relaxed for the first time in a turbulent week in which his premiership had teetered on the brink. He thanked his close allies for their support. Two minutes later, he got to his feet, saying: "Right, I had better get on with things." He returned to Downing Street, where he resumed work on a reshuffle of his junior ministers. He was keen to look forward, but that wasn't easy: he also wanted to telephone all the Labour MEPs who had lost their seats in the European election last Thursday that was catastrophic for his party.

Despite being billed in the media as a meeting that would decide Mr Brown's fate, the party session itself was never going to kill his premiership. An orchestrated show of support by Brown loyalists was inevitable. However, his back-bench critics had resolved to take a decision immediately afterwards on whether to send him a "go now" letter which was drafted – and leaked – last week.

So the Prime Minister needed to pull off a good performance to win round the wavering Labour MPs who were still agonising over whether to join the so-called "peasants' revolt".

The plotters claim that up to 120 MPs, including some cabinet ministers, were ready to put their names to the letter if enough of their colleagues agreed to "jump together". The figure is disputed by Labour whips – although they took the rebellion seriously enough to pull out all the stops to quash it.

In the event, Mr Brown made what some critics acknowledged was a good speech and his friends hailed as one of the best of his life. He had worked on it sitting at the coffin-shaped cabinet table in No 10. Unusually, he spent most of Monday in the cabinet room – rather than in his office, next to his "war room" in 12 Downing Street – because he was also working on a reshuffle of middle-ranking ministers. The "reshuffle room" – complete with white board and yellow stickers with the names of ministers – is next to the cabinet room. The politicians who helped Mr Brown write his crucial speech were Lord Mandelson, now the Deputy Prime Minister in all but name; Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary and his long-time closest ally, and Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary and a former Tory MP, whose influence in Downing Street is growing. They told No 10 spin doctors to make the "top line" of their briefing to Westminster journalists a display of humility by Mr Brown.

Aware that his style of governing had been criticised by the departing ministers Jane Kennedy and Caroline Flint, the man who finds it so hard to say sorry told his MPs: "Like everyone else, I have my strengths and weaknesses. I am going to play to my strengths and address my weaknesses."

Mr Brown pledged to run a more collegiate government and to consult his MPs more. Although this is familiar stuff for a leader in trouble, his uncharacteristically humble tone won over many waverers. Five MPs called for him to go – Charles Clarke, Tom Harris, Fiona McTaggart, Meg Munn and Siobhain McDonagh. They were largely heard in silence and, according to mainstream MPs, only Ms McDonagh made a telling speech which won murmurs of approval. She said: "We've got the right policies. It's the leadership, not the policies that have to change."

Mr Brown and his allies realised about a third of the way through the 95-minute meeting that the mood was with him and that he was safe.

The tension eased when Geraldine Smith, the plain-speaking MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale and an arch-critic of Lord Mandelson's plans to sell a 30 per cent stake in the Royal Mail, brought the house down by telling the meeting: "These are very strange times we live in. I turned on the TV on Sunday and could hardly believe what was happening. I suddenly found myself starting to love Peter Mandelson."

After the meeting dispersed, leading rebels compared notes – largely in a flurry of mobile phone calls so that Labour whips, on patrol in Westminster bars, corridors and rooms, could not disrupt them.

According to one ringleader, the number of MPs ready to put their names to the "go now" letter had

dropped to 54. The rebels judged the tide was swimming too strongly against them. "We needed 80 or 90 to succeed. There was no point in going ahead with the letter," one said. Reluctantly they agreed to fight another day – at the Labour Party conference in September.

They claim about 70 potential rebels were "burned off" by two factors – threats by Brown loyalists that a change of leader would mean an early general election in which many of them would lose their seats, and the absence of another resignation from the Cabinet. "David Miliband and Alan Johnson have a lot to answer for," one rebel said bitterly. "One of them quitting would have been enough to bring down Brown."

One lesson learnt from the dramatic week is that back-bench power alone was not enough to topple Mr Brown. The "peasants' revolt" needed some leadership from the gentry sitting round the cabinet table.

Indeed, the moment of greatest danger to Mr Brown was last Thursday when James Purnell, the Blairite work and pensions secretary, stunned the political world by resigning and calling on the Prime Minister to do the same. There was no sign of trouble in Downing Street and several key Brown aides left work unusually early – about 8pm – so they could vote in the European elections.

Mr Brown was in his office at No 12, working on his cabinet reshuffle with a handful of aides. Some were hanging on to watch the 10pm TV news but they knew that Caroline Flint, the Europe minister and a potential resigner, had recorded interviews in which she gave Mr Brown her strong support.

So the atmosphere was relaxed. A bottle of Australian chardonnay was even opened. It was never drunk. Sue Nye, Mr Brown's gatekeeper and long-standing aide, came into his office and told him that Mr Purnell was on the line. It was news of the feared cabinet resignation.

The almost-deserted "war room" sprang into life. The resignation was on Sky News soon after Mr Brown finished talking with Mr Purnell. The channel had clearly been told before the Prime Minister – a move by Mr Purnell to ensure there could be no going back.

Key Brown aides – Jeremy Heywood, the No 10 permanent secretary; Gavin Kelly, the deputy chief of staff, and David Muir, the director of political strategy – were summoned from their homes. Mr Balls arrived too. An urgent ring-round was launched among senior cabinet ministers to find out whether Mr Purnell was a lone gunman.

Lord Mandelson, who was working with Mr Brown on the reshuffle, rang Mr Miliband, the Foreign Secretary and the man judged most likely to join his friend Mr Purnell. Mr Brown rang Mr Johnson, his most likely successor in the event of a successful coup, as well as Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, and Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary.

The sense of relief was palpable: the rest of the Cabinet was all with Mr Brown. "It wasn't a Thatcher moment," said one Brown ally, referring to the one-to-one meetings with her cabinet which sealed Margaret Thatcher's fate in 1990. "But we needed to know where people were."

By 11pm, Mr Brown was confident that Mr Purnell was acting alone. He was confident that he could carry out a hasty reshuffle the next morning (as he did). The most difficult hour of his two-year premiership had passed.

One recurring theme is that, as in Mr Purnell's case, both back-bench and ministerial critics of Mr Brown acted individually rather than in a co-ordinated way. The wave of resignations by 12 ministers was spread out over seven days. The four who left with a bang – Mr Purnell, Ms Kennedy, Ms Flint (who changed her mind on Friday after failing to win a promotion in the reshuffle) and Hazel Blears – could have inflicted more damage if they had quit together.

Ms Blears, the communities secretary, angered many Labour MPs by quitting on the eve of last Thursday's elections. It would also have had more impact if the ministers had resigned after the announcement of Labour's disastrous Euro election results on Sunday night – and pinned the blame for them on the Prime Minister. Instead, his aides were able to blame the critics for harming Labour's performance by displaying disunity before polling day.

The back-bench plot was even more disorganised. Brown critics failed to learn lessons from the chaotic and abortive coup they launched last summer, which also fizzled out.

At times, the plotting was farcical. "The left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," one rebel admitted. Under what was dubbed the "hotmail plot", Labour MPs were supposed to put their name to an email calling on Mr Brown to quit and then forward it to other MPs. But many failed to realise this and so it didn't reach as many MPs as it should have done. "We couldn't work out why so few people had seen it," one organiser confessed yesterday.

As the drama reached its climax, many critics were facing the wrath of angry Labour voters on the doorsteps as they campaigned for Thursday's elections. They were never in one place at the same time, which made organisation difficult.

Some rebels likened the list of dissidents to a dartboard. "We had a certain number of diehard opponents in the bullseye and other people further out across the board. The challenge was to get the bullseye to move out to encompass more and more people to speak out."

One rebel said: "We knew of more than 100 Labour MPs who were dissatisfied with Gordon's leadership. The question was how brave were they going to be in making it known publicly." They needed to show the rebellion had spread beyond the "usual suspects" of unreconstructed Blairites and the hard left. They were delighted when Nick Raynsford, a mainstream former minister, spoke out on Sunday. But, crucially, they failed to win over the 30-strong left-wing Campaign group or Jon Cruddas, standard-bearer of the left-of-centre group, Compass.

The rebels were divided over tactics and were still divided yesterday over whether Mr Brown had won a temporary reprieve until the Labour conference in September or is now safe until the general election.

One loyalist said the rebels were never going to succeed because they had "no strategy, no end-game in mind... They wanted Gordon out, but they couldn't agree on anything else"

There is huge scepticism among Labour MPs about whether the Prime Minister will deliver on his promise to change his spots. Indeed, on the same day as his Parliamentary Labour Party speech, hard-nosed Brownites were telling journalists that Mr Purnell had quit because he was not up to his challenging welfare brief (a myth) and were threatening to expose mistakes in one MP's expenses claims if he joined the revolt. "There's a meanness of spirit which comes from No 10, real negativity. The question now is whether that spills over into vindictiveness and vengeance," one critic said.

The gallows humour among Labour MPs over their party's predicament is underlined by the latest joke circulating in the Commons bars. One long-serving Labour MP told colleagues: "The leadership election after the general election will be much easier to organise. We'll need only seven signatures to force a contest, because that will be 20 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party."

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