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Andrew Grice: If Gordon Brown can survive this, he can survive anything

The prospect of an early election under a new leader has scared many MPs off

Labour MPs, including some ministers, are in agony. They are having sleepless nights and dark long days as they worry about whether to go public in calling on Gordon Brown to stand down.

Some ministers who have just agreed to serve in his Government wonder whether they have done the right thing. Labour isn't on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is in the middle of one.

If Gordon Brown can survive this, he can survive anything. Incredibly, close allies insist he is calm. The man who throws mobile phones around when things go wrong has somehow found even deeper reserves of resilience to get him through this crisis.

Labour's agony has been deepened by the results of the European Parliament elections. To finish third behind Ukip, described as "loonies and fruitcakes and closet racists" by David Cameron, was bad enough. To lose two seats to the extreme-right British National Party as the Labour vote collapsed in its heartlands rubbed salt into the wounds.

There was a 12 per cent swing from Labour to the Tories since the last general election. On that basis, six cabinet ministers would lose their seats – the Chancellor Alistair Darling (in Edinburgh South West), the Justice Secretary Jack Straw (Blackburn), the Schools Secretary Ed Balls (Morley and Outwood), the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy (East Renfrewshire), the Communities Secretary John Denham (Southampton Itchen) and the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw (Exeter).

As Labour is quick to point out, we cannot translate a mid-term election fought under proportional representation to a general election in which voters would be choosing a government. The smaller parties, having reaped the benefit from the MPs' expenses scandal, would surely slip back, Labour officials argue.

However, some Labour MPs believe privately that the expenses controversy is a convenient excuse for the Brownites. They accept that Labour has taken the biggest hit as the governing party, but are not sure it would have done much better in last Thursday's elections if the scandal had not erupted.

One Labour backbencher said the mood among grass roots party activists was different to last year, when they warned MPs to stop their damaging infighting – a traditional moan. "This time they are saying 'for God's sake do something, we have got to change the leader'," she said.

Luckily for Mr Brown, the rebels plotting his downfall are divided among themselves about how to proceed and this may yet save him (again). There is no sign yet of the round-robin letter calling on Mr Brown to quit which they were organising last week. Nor of the further cabinet-level resignation they desperately hoped to see, after James Purnell's spectacular walkout last Thursday. The critics cannot even organise chaos. What we have is disorganised chaos and it is sending a terrible signal to the public.

As Labour whips went into overdrive to quash the revolt yesterday, there was brave talk as some rebels talked of putting off the coup until the autumn. They argued that Labour would not then need to call a special conference to approve a leadership contest because its annual conference takes place in September. However, it would still require the backing of 70 MPs for a single candidate to ensure a motion calling for an election goes before the conference. That could be a tall order.

The other benefit, say some plotters, is that an incoming leader could avoid a general election this year by naming a date next spring. By then, economic green shoots might give Labour an outside chance of victory, the argument runs. Perhaps Mr Brown will fall on his sword if he fails to close the gap in the opinion polls, some Labour folk say. A more likely scenario is that senior cabinet ministers decide he has used his last life.

Other Labour MPs dream that Mr Brown will be able to "turn things round" with a policy blitz. But few really believe it. Despite the despair that they are sleepwalking to defeat under him, the prospect of an early general election under a new leader has scared many of them off. Turkeys do not want an early Christmas, even if they know it will come eventually. So Houdini escapes again, just when his critics had him trapped.

Party leaders would be very wrong to assume that people will have forgotten about the expenses scandal by the general election. I doubt that the sacking of a few MPs, the repayment of a few thousand pounds and a new code of conduct for MPs will ensure the storm blows over. "People will still look at us differently at the general election; we can't wipe the slate clean," one minister admitted yesterday. "Something very big has changed."