BBC Deputy Political Editor James Landale reports on the day's events
ANALYSIS - BY BEN WRIGHT
"You should be ashamed of yourself!" barked a passing Labour MP as Geoff Hoon huddled with hacks in the House of Commons. Others condemned the Hoon-Hewitt email as "suicidal", "self-indulgent" and "foolish".
If their clarion call for a leadership contest was meant to ignite a putsch among Labour backbenchers, then it might have fizzled. Yes, it has the backing of people long-opposed to Gordon Brown, such as Charles Clarke, Barry Sheerman and Frank Field. But the majority of Labour MPs seem to be miffed by this, coming just weeks before polling day and with the polls possibly tightening. The chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Tony Lloyd, certainly cannot see a queue of MPs lining up to demand a leadership ballot.
But, if there was a ballot, would Mr Brown win it? That's a very different proposition.
The prime minister's immediate fate was once again in the hands of his cabinet colleagues. Last summer they chose not to follow James Purnell out of the door and the threat passed. This, surely, was the last chance for those who do not want Mr Brown to lead Labour into the election to try and get someone else instead.
At the moment (6pm Wednesday) they are standing by him. By mid-afternoon, interviews and statements of support began to sprout, the Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward being the first to condemn the email as "a huge distraction that nobody wants". Crucially for the PM, Lord Mandelson then declared that Mr Brown had the support of his colleagues.
But then the airwaves went eerily quiet and for an hour nothing was heard from the Chancellor Alistair Darling - an old friend of Geoff Hoon - or Home Secretary Alan Johnson - many MPs' preferred replacement.
Their eventual statements of support should ensure that Brown survives. But a caveat: read the statements carefully and they don't exactly gush about the qualities of the man in Number 10.
So. why has this latest attempt to turf Gordon Brown out of Downing Street seemingly failed again? First, it does not appear to have been an orchestrated campaign which co-ordinated the malcontents on Labour's backbenches and in government. If this was the starting gun to a leadership challenge most MPs seemed to flinch with surprise at hearing it.
Second, where is the candidate chomping at the bit to take over? Alan Johnson has said he does not want the job umpteen times and people are starting to believe that he means it. There are plenty of people who would like the job eventually - Ed Balls and the Millibands to name three - but they do not seem eager to take over on the eve of an election.
Unlike the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, this saga has never had a stalking horse or a big beast willing to wield the knife. For the moment, the chance of regicide seems to have receded.
AS IT HAPPENED - BY JUSTIN PARKINSON
1820 OK. It's time to end our live text coverage of a dramatic day at Westminster. To see who's backing the secret ballot and who's supporting the prime minister,
You can also follow the latest updates on
Nick Robinson's blog.
Thanks for watching and please join us again next Wednesday for our live coverage of prime minister's questions.
1817 BBC political editor Nick Robinson says the day's events have been "quite extraordinary". The call for a secret ballot of Labour MPs is being discussed, he adds, although cabinet ministers are rallying around. Foreign Secretary David Miliband - who has remained silent thus far - thinks the Hoon-Hewitt move "is not going anywhere", according to a close friend.
THE STORY SO FAR: Former cabinet minsters Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have called for a secret ballot among Labour MPs on the future of party leader, and prime minister, Gordon Brown. They say this is needed to put an end to behind-the-scenes speculation and plotting against him. Former ministers Charles Clarke and Frank Field - long-time Brown enemies - have backed the call, as has another previous critic Barry Sheerman. Six cabinet ministers including Jack Straw, Ed Miliband, Alistair Darling, Ed Balls, Lord Mandelson, Shaun Woodward and Andy Burnham have criticised the Hoon-Hewitt scheme. Some Labour backbenchers have denounced it as "cowardly" and a "dead duck", arguing that it is "unconstitutional" according to party rules. Downing Street says Mr Brown will not step down and is "getting on with the job". The Tories and Lib Dems are calling for a general election as soon as possible. The demand for a ballot comes a maximum of five months ahead of an election.
1758 Gordon Brown and Transport Secretary Lord Adonis have been visiting a "snow control centre" in south London. A welcome distraction?
1745 Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell predicts the furore over a leadership ballot will "blow itself out".
1740 Former minister Fiona Mactaggart has written to Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Tony Lloyd adding her support to the demand for a ballot. Her letter reads: "I really think that we need to deal with this matter finally. The proposal for a ballot of MPs is one which could enable us to close this issue. And I support it."
1728 Justice Secretary Jack Straw, who ran Mr Brown's 2007 campaign to become Labour leader, says the difficult circumstances faced by the government - such as the economic recession and MPs' expenses scandal - were not the PM's fault. There is not an "issue" about the direction in which Mr Brown and the cabinet are seeking to lead the country, he tells the BBC. He predicts the Labour leadership will not change before the general election.
1725 Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband says the ballot call is a "temporary distraction". He says cabinet ministers are coming out in support of Mr Brown "not so much because we have to but because we want to".
1721 Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Tony Lloyd says the plot has "not gone anywhere" among backbench MPs.
1714 A backer for the Hoon-Hewitt plan. Former minister Janet Anderson, who has previously called publicly for Mr Brown to quit, says: "I very much welcome this proposal, and I think we should have a ballot as soon as possible to clear up the question marks over Gordon's leadership." She tells the Lancashire Telegraph: "There is no doubt that many of my constituents in Rossendale and Darwen are unhappy with it, especially women. We need to clear it up once and for all."
1709 Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband backs the prime minister. Cabinet members are coming out in support thick and fast now. Mr Miliband says this episode will be "forgotten" by next week.
1706 Chancellor Alistair Darling says the government should be getting on with its work and dealing with the recession. That's about eight cabinet ministers who have backed him. Among the leading figures, we have yet to hear from Justice Secretary Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Commons leader Harriet Harman.
1701 A cabinet big beast speaks in defence of the PM. Home Secretary Alan Johnson says: "Gordon Brown is the best man to lead the Labour Party. I respect Patricia and Geoff a great deal but I do not support their proposal."
1658 The prime minister is on his way to see a "snow command centre", the BBC learns. The BBC's Ross Hawkins says there is a "definite sense of a lull" following all the earlier excitement, as Labour MPs no doubt discuss their options.
1655 Did you know it is now two years and 193 days since Gordon Brown became prime minister?
1651 The Guardian's Michael White tells Sky News it does not appear as if Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt - despite their long experience in politics - have thought through their plan to hold a ballot and that support for it could be sketchy.
1635 Former Home Office minister Tony McNulty says the push for a ballot is "completely daft" and will be "as fleeting as the snow on the ground". How fleeting will the snow be, though?
1625 The leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Royall, tells the BBC the Hoon/Hewitt secret ballot is an "irrelevant distraction" and that she "fully supports the prime minister".
1615 The prime minister's spokesman says Mr Brown is "relaxed", despite his "busy schedule".
1610 More words from Health Secretary Andy Burnham. He has "huge respect" for Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt but says Labour backbenchers came back from their Christmas break looking for a "spot of Tory-bashing rather than navel-gazing". It is "frustrating" after a good performance at prime minister's questions by Gordon Brown, he adds, predicting a "backlash" in favour of the party's leader.
1600 Although no current ministers have spoken out against Mr Brown, so far only a few cabinet ministers have spoken in support. Will more follow as this increasingly snowy day progresses?
1552 Amid the demands from opposition parties for an immediate general election, a bit of historical context. Most governments prefer to go the polls in warmer weather. The last time a PM called an election anything like this early in the year was 1974, when Tory Edward Heath set a poll date of 28 February. No party won overall control and another election took place that October, giving Labour a tiny majority - three seats.
1544 Plaid Cymru's Westminster leader, Elfyn Llwyd, wants an immediate general election. "Brown's leadership battle means very little to Welsh communities," he says. "This government should be getting on with tackling the precarious state of the economy."
1540 The Commons benches are incredibly empty. I counted three Labour MPs, about seven Tories and one Lib Dem. What are they discussing? A motion on The Sitting of the House. Bodies, as well as minds, are elsewhere, it seems.
1523 How will historians (not to mention tabloid headline writers) remember the events of 6 January 2010? Woe in the Snow? Where's Muhammad Ali in his pomp when you need him?
1520 Transport minister Sadiq Khan is backing the prime minister. He says he does not understand the reasoning of Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt.
1517 BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reads out a text he had seen which was sent by Business Secretary Lord Mandelson to Labour advisers. The text says there had been a "complete over-reaction" to the ballot call, which had been made by people outside government and that MPs should back Mr Brown.
1512 Labour backbencher John Mann said Mr Hoon had been involved in previous plots, telling the BBC: "This is the fourth attempt that Geoff Hoon has made to have a coup against a sitting prime minister. I know for a fact he tried twice against Tony Blair and this is his second attempt against Gordon Brown. This is about sour grapes. He thought he was going to be the European Commissioner and he isn't.
1506 Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond has called on old rival Gordon Brown to resign.
1501 My colleague Ross Hawkins gives a meteorological perspective on the possibility of the challenge to Mr Brown succeeding. As heavy snow falls on a picturesque Westminster, he questions whether such conditions will dampen - or numb? - enthusiasm for change. Getting out and about to gather support might not be the most appealing prospect at the moment. Although if everyone gets snowed-in at Westminster...
1456 Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward says he is "astonished" by the actions of Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt. He describes the call for a ballot on Mr Brown as an unnecessary distraction following his "hugely successful" performance earlier at prime minister's questions.
1450 From BBC Deputy Political Editor James Landale: Labour MPs have been rushing to criticise Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt for demanding a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership. One key Labour aide close to Downing Street said: "I am speechless. It is tactically clueless, it is utterly pointless. They have no idea where it is going... just when we had the Tories on the run they go and do this."
1435 Senior Labour MP Barry Sheerman, who has been publicly calling for a change of leadership for several months, backed the call for a vote and said it could be held as early as the next meeting of the PLP on Monday. "I welcome it. I want a rational discussion, have a secret ballot on Monday... and clear this out of the way." Asked if it was just the usual critics of Brown, he said "there are many more to come" although he did not name names.
1425 The former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, a long running Brown critic, said he supported the call by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership. He told the BBC he believed it was "the right thing to do" and "the only way to resolve matters before the election."
1415 A Labour Party statement says: "There is no provision for a secret ballot of MPs within the Labour Party constitution or rules, nor is there any provision whatsoever for a leadership election to be open only to MPs. The Labour Party, its members and affiliates are committed to making sure that we get through this recession fairly, that we secure the recovery and we as a Party go on to present the choice at the next election between our plans for an age of aspiration or the Tories plans for an age of austerity. A choice between securing growth or choking off the recovery. Not only therefore is this idea unconstitutional, it is not wanted and not needed."
1357 The Commons chamber is almost empty, particularly the Labour benches, as MPs discuss the Video Recordings Bill. I wonder where they all are?
1356 It's getting a bit personal now. Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, has described Mr Hoon as "Side-Show Bob", the disgruntled and embittered minor character from the Simpsons cartoon.
1355 David Drew, Labour MP for Stroud in Gloucestershire, dismisses the call for a ballot as a "joke".
1348 Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the Unite union, says the secret ballot call is unwelcome and divisive.
1346 Senior Labour sources tell the BBC that the move by Mr Hoon and Mr Hewitt is "completely unconstitutional". They say the party could only call a leadership election through a card vote at its annual conference.
What are Labour leadership contest rules?
1344 Downing Street says the prime minister is "getting on with the job" and is not breaking off any of the meetings in his diary.
1342 Labour MP Geraldine Smith says the actions of Ms Hewitt and Mr Hoon are "cowardly". She says people who have a problem with the PM should be telling their constituents, not just speaking to fellow MPs. She says fewer than 20 Labour backbenchers are keeping up the pressure on Mr Brown and that others are annoyed with them.
1340 Tory chairman Eric Pickles again. He says it is noticeable that Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt have used the Tory slogan "We can't go on like this". The prime minister is "injured", he tells Sky News, adding that the "logical thing" is to call a general election. He urges the PM to give the "whole of the nation a secret ballot", rather than just Labour MPs.
1336 Some words from Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander, the chief-of-staff to party leader Nick Clegg. He says: "Labour has given up any hope of winning this election and given up on governing the country. Labour MPs are now in a desperate scrabble to save their own seats and minimise their defeat."
1332 Health Secretary Andy Burnham says he does not support the call for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's future.
1327 Europe minister Chris Bryant tells BBC Radio 4's The World at One the public has not warmed to Tory leader David Cameron. Lib Dem schools spokesman David Laws says Labour has undergone an "implosion".
1325 Conservative chairman Eric Pickles tells BBC Radio 4's World at One that Labour is plunging into "civil war" and that the country could have another "unelected prime minister" by this time next week.
1320 Geoff Hoon tells Sky News he received several e-mails supporting his move, shortly after he sent the letter to his Labour colleagues.
1318 Nick Robinson says the call for a ballot could fizzle out... or the situation will move on very quickly. Europe minister Chris Bryant says most Labour members do not want the change.
1314 Nick Robinson says the whole situation is "extraordinary " and "without precedent", coming as near to a general election as it does.
1313 Patricia Hewitt says she thinks Mr Brown did very well in attacking the Tories over their economic policies at prime minister's questions. She says the PM's supporters - not just his opponents - should back her call for a secret ballot on his future. It will give Labour the best chance of winning the election, Ms Hewitt adds.
1311 Radio 5 live political expert John Pienaar says a secret ballot is unlikely to be allowed, as it would enable Mr Brown's opponents to criticise him with impunity.
1309 Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, says Gordon Brown should ignore the Hewitt-Hoon letter and that the campaign against him lacks support.
1308 Mr Hoon says he has not spoken to any members of the current cabinet about the plan.
1305 Geoff Hoon tells the BBC that Labour is "simply not" getting its message across and that the letter is designed to unite the party behind a leader. He says matters have to be "resolved" ahead of the election.
1302 Nick Robinson says there is "no question" that Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt would have taken the step without some support. The question is "how much" they have, he adds. No-one knows whether MPs will have the "nerve" and "gall" to remove the prime minister, he adds.
1254 BBC deputy political editor James Landale says the Labour MPs he has spoken to are sceptical about the Hewitt-Hoon plan. They say the two former ministers are not "key players", he adds.
1252 Another regular Brown critic, the former home secretary Charles Clarke, has said he supports the call for a secret ballot.
1251 Europe minister Chris Bryant says some people in the Labour Party are "unhappy" with Mr Brown's leadership. He says the governing socialist party in Portugal was 20 points behind in the polls last year but still won the election.
1251 Nick Robinson says the text and letter are designed to engineer a "grass-roots revolution" against Mr Brown. The letter expresses no view on whether the PM should stay but it is obvious Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt want him to go, he adds.
1250 Here is the full text of the letter from Hewitt and Hoon:
Dear Colleague, As we move towards a General Election it remains the case that the Parliamentary Labour Party is deeply divided over the question of the leadership. Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot. This could be done quickly and with minimum disruption to the work of MPs and the Government. Whatever the outcome the whole of the party could then go forward, knowing that this matter had been sorted out once and for all. Strong supporters of the Prime Minister should have no difficulty in backing this approach. There is a risk otherwise that the persistent background briefing and grumbling could continue up to and possibly through the election campaign, affecting our ability to concentrate all of our energies on getting our real message across. Equally those who want change, should they lose such a vote, would be expected by the majority of the PLP to devote all of their efforts to winning the election. The implications of such a vote would be clear - everyone would be bound to support the result. This is a clear opportunity to finally lay this matter to rest. The continued speculation and uncertainty is allowing our opponents to portray us as dispirited and disunited. It is damaging our ability to set out our strong case to the electorate. It is giving our political opponents an easy target. In what will inevitably be a difficult and demanding election campaign, we must have a determined and united parliamentary party. It is our job to lead the fight against our political opponents. We can only do that if we resolve these distractions. We hope that you will support this proposal. Yours fraternally, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt
1242 Former minister and long-time Brown critic Frank Field says he welcomes the call for a secret ballot on the PM's leadership.
1242 Shadow Lords leader Lord Strathclyde says the text campaign is "disastrous" for Labour, as it comes at "one minute to midnight" before the election.
1241 Nick Robinson says Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt are attempting to push Labour MPs who are worried about the future under Mr Brown to come out.
1239 Nick Robinson says the phrase "we can't go on like this" is extraordinary, as it mirrors a Tory slogan. He draws parallels with Prime Minister John Major's problems in 1995, when he challenged critical rivals to contest the leadership.
1237 Mr Bryant says the message from Mr Hoon, the former defence secretary, and former health secretary Ms Hewitt will not resonate with Labour MPs.
1236 Prime minister's questions is over for another week. Back to that text to Labour MPs. The message supposedly says the party "can't go on like this". Europe minister Chris Bryant says it is "entirely wrong and inappropriate".
1231 Breaking News... Away from the Commons Nick Robinson says former ministers Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon are texting Labour colleagues urging a ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership.
From BBC political correspondent Gary O'Donoghue: Forget the big freeze and worries about gas supplies, PM questions today provided more than enough heat and hot air to go round. It might be a new year, but today's clashes between Brown and Cameron were a rehash of a familiar debate. Whose deficit reduction strategy is the more credible? One notable difference today was that the PM did allow the C-word to pass his lips - acknowledging that his plan would involve "cuts in some major departments", which is about as far as he's ever gone in admitting that there will be pain ahead. Both men traded gags over Tory difficulties with the status of their commitment to the married couples allowance, but neither managed to land the fatal blow. For his part, Nick Clegg signalled his intent to press on with a message on fair taxes - something he intends to make a hallmark of his election campaign.
1231 A very friendly question on the boiler scrappage scheme. Mr Brown says the policy is popular and cold weather payments are helping people.
1230 Tory Michael Spicer asks what the PM will do about "stagflation". Mr Brown calls the idea "quite ridiculous".
1229 Tory Ann Winterton says there is a "cooling trend" in temperatures, saying offshore wind farms are wasteful and will raise electricity bills. Mr Brown says offshore wind is the correct policy.
1227 On the Copenhagen talks, Mr Brown says there was some agreement on global temperature rise limits. But there is still work to be done in reaching a legally binding treaty, he adds.
1226 Tory Ben Wallace says the government is cutting defence research spending, possibly threatening security. Mr Brown says counter-terrorism capacity is increasing.
1224 Independent MP Andrew Pelling asks about compensation for staff being relocated out of south-east England. Mr Brown says the government is doing all it can and is helping to improve employment in London and its surrounding areas.
1222 The Lib Dem leader says there is no "aspiration" in the tax system, especially given a planned rise in National Insurance. The PM says the burden must be shared fairly and that the government is working to achieve this.
1220 Mr Clegg says the poorest pay more in tax than the richest. Mr Brown says tax credits have helped bring greater justice and made work pay.
1220 Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg pays tribute to soldiers killed in Afghanistan and the late MP David Taylor.
1219 Mr Brown says he is pressing the Israeli government to do more to get aid to the people of Gaza.
1218 Mr Brown says Mr Cameron gets everything "wrong". That ends the battle of the two main party leaders until next week.
1216 Mr Cameron says a divided Labour Party is putting the UK's future at risk. Mr Brown says the Tories are not ready for government. Is it the election campaign already? Maybe not officially, but this week's exchanges suggests it's well under way.
1214 Speaker John Bercow calls for quiet, saying MPs are "not on the hustings now". Mr Cameron calls the PM's comments "rubbish". He makes a joke about marriage and the PM's relationship with his chancellor, saying: "When I lean over in the morning and say 'Darling, I love you', I mean it." On the same lines, Mr Brown replies that at least he can say "I do" or "I don't" on tax help for married couples.
1212 Mr Cameron says Mr Brown is incapable of admitting cuts must be made. The PM mocks the Tory leader over inconsistency over whether there should be a married couples allowance. There is much hollering in the chamber.
1211 The PM says there has been praise for the government's efforts over the economy. He says that, under the Tories, unemployment would have been greater. Mr Cameron suggests ministers are at odds with one another over what course of action to take. It's like 2009 all over again...
1210 Some bish-bash stuff from Mr Brown about the Tories' own plans - saying that Mr Cameron changed his mind in the course of a day over tax relief for married couples. Mr Cameron replies that the failure to control public finances was a "major risk" to the UK.
1208 Onto the economy. Mr Cameron asks why experts are warning that Britain's credit rating may be lowered. Mr Brown says the fiscal stimulus will not stop until the country is out of recession and that the Conservatives got it wrong on the economy.
1206 Tory leader David Cameron also pays tribute to the seven service personnel killed in Afghanistan during the parliamentary recess. He says the late MP David Taylor was diligent and will be sadly missed.
1205 Labour's Brian Donohoe asks for an update on the attempted bombing of the plane from Amsterdam to Detroit by a man who had studied at London University. The PM says arrangements are being reviewed.
1203 Mr Brown pays tributes to soldiers killed in Afghanistan over the last few weeks. He mentions the attempted bombing on a US-bound plane and says people must be "extra vigilant". Mr Brown also pays tribute to the MP David Taylor, who died a few weeks ago.
1201 Gordon Brown is on his feet and prime minister's questions is under way.
1158 The Commons chamber is almost full. David Cameron is in. Not long to go.
1156 Snow again. Everyone is frustrated it seems. Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has said: "There is, I know, something about Britain when it rains or snows. Quite why the grit isn't there on a sufficient scale and leaves on the line and snowflakes in front of the engine sometimes have this effect eludes me. But let's just assume we're now well prepared and well girded."
1154 Lord Strathclyde says there is economic confusion among government ministers over what needs to be done to boost the economy. Chris Bryant responds that people's confidence in the future is growing.
1152 Economist Will Hutton says the UK is now out of recession and that figures in January will show this. The momentum is "huge now", he adds.
1150 In the Commons it's Wales questions. Quite a few MPs seem to have made it in through the travel chaos. Welsh Secretary Peter Hain's tan does not seem to have suffered during the cold snap.
1148 Shadow Lords leader Lord Strathclyde says local authorities should have contingency plans to deal with cold snaps. The government could have a role in co-ordinating them, he says.
1146 Snow time. Speaking on Daily Politics, Europe minister Chris Bryant says it is daft to have thousands of snow ploughs around the country doing little for most of the year and that allocation of such resources is largely down to councils. Government aid with fuel bills is helping people, he adds.
1144 Given the cold weather, warnings about the UK's gas reserves could crop up today . As could Iceland's apparent change of heart on paying back the compensation given by the UK government for those affected by the collapse of its banks. The attempted bombing of a plane bound for the US may also get a mention.
1142 The parties have come back from the Christmas break seemingly in full election campaigning mode - although the vote itself is probably about four months away. So, what's on the agenda today? Expect some mention of the budget deficit, which has dominated spats this week between Labour and the Tories. Afghanistan is a likely subject too.
1140 Hello, happy new year and welcome to another decade of PM's questions. As snow sweeps much of the country, Gordon Brown returns for a nice, warming grilling from David Cameron, Nick Clegg and backbench MPs. My colleague Gary O'Donoghue will provide analysis. Joining us via BBC Two's Daily Politics will be House of Lords shadow leader Lord Strathclyde and Europe minister Chris Bryant.
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