Former cabinet members release letter to MPs after Gordon Brown's first PMQs of the year calling for the leadership issue to be sorted out 'once and for all'
The former Labour cabinet ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt today called for a secret ballot to settle Gordon Brown's leadership "once and for all".
In a devastating blow to the prime minister, Hoon, who was Brown's first chief whip after he became premier, and Hewitt, the former health secretary, released a letter to Labour MPs after Brown's first question time of general election year.
The development comes despite efforts by Downing Street insiders earlier today to dismiss as nonsense rumours that backbench critics of the PM were trying to persuade sympathetic cabinet ministers to resign in a bid to force him out.
The expected salvo from Hewitt, a Blairite who is due to stand down as an MP at the next election, follows her recent criticism of the prime minister over changes to the child tax credit unveiled in the pre-budget report.
Rumours over a lastditch attempt to remove Brown as leader have gained such a head of steam in the tea rooms of Westminster and in the blogosphere that the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, was last night forced to put out a statement denying she was planning to quit.
Hoon and Hewitt have been on the outskirts of the core 20 rebels agitating for Brown to go for some months. Hoon had prepared a resignation letter in which he called for Brown to go at the time of leaving government in June 2009 but declined to publish it, hopeful that he might have gone on to be appointed to the role of EU commissioner.
However, since his time outside government he has spent much time with the rebels who had expected for six weeks or more that Hoon would make the kind of intervention he has made today. Hewitt has been unhappy with Brown's leadership for a long time but has declined to put her name to any move until now, despite being associating with the rebels.
Those rebels whose names have long been associated with the plot against Brown have written publicly in the last few days but in other respects have been notable for their silence on tactics and strategy.
Some commentators had suggested that Blairite Jowell could be the subject of rumours of an impending resignation, because of her recent attack on the "hideous" class war strategy of highlighting David Cameron's Eton background.
But Jowell said: "This story is complete and utter rubbish and I have no intention of resigning."
A string of calls were made from anti-Brownite backbenchers Charles Clarke, Barry Sheerman and Greg Pope for Brown to be removed as PM early in the new year.
Brown's Labour critics feel that an alternative leader would have to take over within weeks to have any chance of making a dent in the Tories' double-digit opinion poll lead by the final possible election date of 3 June.
But repeated polls suggest that there is no clear candidate among Labour's senior figures who could be guaranteed to turn the party's position around if he or she took over as prime minister.
This is either a really stupid idea or a brilliant one. I'm tempted to go with the 'stupid' option; it'd be better to get rid of Brown after a disappointing election result. This way would lead to more bloodshed than I think the PLP can handle.
ETA: Frank Field and Charles Clarke have come out in favour of the secret ballot.