Page last updated at 21:58 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

PM raises a laugh - but what of Labour's hopes?

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown talked of sending certain people to the salt mines

It all could have been so different.

If the former cabinet ministers Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon had got their way, Labour MPs would have been voting on whether they had continued confidence in their leader.

Instead, the Parliamentary Labour Party met in different circumstances - the attempted coup, in the end, had not struck a fatal blow to Gordon Brown's hopes of staying in number 10. At least in the short term.

His task was to convince his backbenchers that the party could still win the next election, with him at the helm - and despite the public display of division last week.

He arrived five minutes early, looking relaxed and without his usual retinue of advisers. He smiled at the press and gave us a "Hi, guys" more reminiscent of his predecessor.

What happened tonight was put up or shut up time
Stephen Pound, Labour MP

The meeting was packed to the rafters, with Steve McCabe, the MP who had co-ordinated the ill-fated Crewe and Nantwich by-election campaign, unable to get in.

He joked he had been excluded. At least, I think it was a joke. If so, it turned out to be the first of many last night.

Diane Abbott, of the BBC's own This Week political sofa show, showed more grit than a council depot by trying three different entrances to the venue - a large room in the Commons' main committee corridor - before finally being admitted to the oversubscribed event.

The prime minister only refereed to the attempts to unseat him last week in the form of a joke, albeit one with chilling Stalinist overtones.

He said, as the country continues to shiver, that he had asked the chairman of the Salt Union what he could do to help, and was told that more staff were required.

To sniggering, he said he could think of one or two candidates he would like to send down the salt mines and that the chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party would be taking nominations, with a secret ballot to follow.

'One of a team'

Perhaps expecting something harsher than a public ribbing, neither Mr Hoon nor Ms Hewitt were present, though they were tried in their absence by some backbenchers who ritually denounced them before making their own contributions to the debate.

Mr Brown's more serious message was that he believed economic recovery would be the platform for victory at the next election.

Following last week's attempted coup, he had held a series of one-to-one meetings with leading cabinet members.

If, as reported, they were telling him he needed to adopt a more collegiate approach, he pushed all the right buttons, saying: "I am not a team of one; I am one of a team."

He talked of aspiration as often as he used to talk of prudence but did not once mention making cuts in spending - though he did acknowledge the need to reduce the big budget deficit and tackle it through taxation, growth and ending wasteful expenditure.

Then the team of which he was now just one member was paraded: chairman of election strategy Lord Mandelson; election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander; and Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman.

'All right'

Continuing the mood of levity, Lord Mandelson joked that he had been "politically dating" Ms Harman recently.

But it was almost as significant to note who did not speak at the meeting.

The big beast of Brown critics, former home secretary Charles Clarke, was present but kept his own counsel.

Barry Sheerman, who had considered standing for chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party as an anti-Brown candidate, also remained silent. He said afterwards that he was now reconciled to the failure of last week's attempts to oust Mr Brown.

Some lesser-known former critics of the prime minister were broadly supportive.

One former minister I spoke to after the meeting summed up the mood: "Gordon' s performance was all right; many of us have doubts about him but any challenge to his leadership should have taken place last year, not now."

Many of the questions from backbenchers to the prime minister and his "team" were not about leadership, but specifically about how the election campaign was going to be fought - with special pleading from some.

A representative from a well-known seaside town asked for a specific strategy for coastal communities.

Only one MP came close to criticising the prime minister's upbeat message by saying: "The elephant in the room is that we are still behind in the polls."

Overall, then, Labour was laughing in the face of imminent electoral danger.

As Mr Brown draws up the battle lines with the Conservatives, there appears to be at the very least an uneasy truce within Labour's ranks.

In election year it now appears that the prime minister will have to face his political enemies head-on rather than having to spend his time tackling the enemies within.

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Telegraph Gordon Brown: I am not a team of one. I'm one of a team - 27 hrs ago Brown plans election strategy - PA - 32 hrs ago
The Scotsman Brown plans election strategy - 32 hrs ago
The Independent Labour MPs rally behind Brown after plot - 34 hrs ago
Observer PM presents united front to Labour MPs - 35 hrs ago

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