British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s hopes of political survival suffered a fresh blow tonight as a poll of Labour activists found fewer than half wanted him to carry on to the next general election.
British government loyalists spent the day insisting that there was no mood in the party for a leadership challenge as they sought to rally support for the beleaguered prime minister.
However, a YouGov poll of 800 Labour Party members for Channel 4 News found opinion almost equally split – with 46% saying he should carry on and 47% urging him to go before the election. One-in-five – 21% – said he should quit immediately.
Some 45% percent thought victory was unlikely under his leadership while 32% said that the party had no chance at all if he remained in place.
The one crumb of comfort for Mr Brown was that activists believed their prospects would be little better if their favoured choice of successor – new Home Secretary Alan Johnson – was in place.
Brown, in Normandy for the D-Day 65th anniversary commemorations today, insisted that he would not be deflected by the continuing furore over his leadership.
“In these unprecedented times you are bound to have ups and downs in politics,” he told reporters. “But you have got to stick with the policies and make sure that they come through.”
However, the next flashpoint could come as early as tomorrow evening with the announcement of the results of the European elections which are expected to deliver a repeat of the mauling that Labour suffered in the English council elections.
There is even speculation that the party could be beaten into a humiliating third behind the UK Independence Party, which is hoping to improve upon its surprise third place in 2004.
That could be the cue for the Labour rebels who have been plotting behind the scenes to oust Mr Brown to finally show their hand when MPs return to Westminster on Monday.
The calls for party unity were led by new Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw, who warned that there was no mood among the party grassroots for a bruising battle over the leadership.
“I hope my Labour colleagues will now get the message from their Labour activists and supporters in their constituencies that they want people to rally round and unite and support the government,” he said.
Former party leader Neil Kinnock said that he believed that the rebels behind the so-called “peasants revolt” did not have the nerve or the numbers to mount a successful challenge.
“The so-called rebels are very few in number, not substantial and they lack the most critically important feature in democratic politics – what Churchill called intestinal fortitude – guts,” Kinnock said.
“If they had any they would have made their identities known before now.”
Mr Brown just about managed to get through the reshuffle of his top team on Friday after James Purnell’s dramatic resignation as Work and Pensions Secretary failed to trigger an all-out Cabinet rebellion.
However, he could still be hit by a revolt among middle and junior ministers as he completes his full government reshuffle next week.
Last night Europe Minister Caroline Flint stormed out after being denied a promotion to the Cabinet which she apparently believed that she had been promised following a declaration of loyalty.
In a blistering resignation letter, Ms Flint – a close friend of Hazel Blears who quit as Communities Secretary on Wednesday – accused Mr Brown of using his women ministers as “female window dressing”.
Some have speculated that the underlying weakness of his position was highlighted by Mr Brown’s failure to remove Alistair Darling from the British Treasury and replace him as Chancellor with his closest lieutenant, Ed Balls.
With Mr Darling apparently refusing to accept an alternative post, Mr Brown could simply not afford another high-level resignation despite the damage to his authority.
It has left Mr Brown more reliant than ever on Business Secretary Lord Mandelson – his one-time sworn enemy – who is believed to have played a key role in ensuring other leading Blairites did not join Mr Purnell’s revolt.
The News of the World newspaper said tonight it obtained emails from Mandelson in which he warned that Mr Brown could not win the general election.
According to the paper, which only released brief details ahead of the publication of tomorrow’s edition, the emails were sent in January last year, before Lord Mandelson’s return to government.
He was said to have advised that voters were put off Mr Brown because they thought he was “angry”.
Mandelson was also said to have expressed concern that Mr Brown was too preoccupied with celebrity gimmicks, warning “strategic policy formulation” is more important than “telling people you watch the X-Factor”.
The emails were said to have been sent to former Labour spin doctor Derek Draper, who was also embroiled in the controversy over the plan by ex Downing Street aide Damian McBride to smear leading Tories.
Aides to Mandelson flatly denied that he had said Mr Brown could not win the next election.