LONDON (Reuters) - Two senior members of the government backed the prime minister on Sunday to remain in charge of the Labour Party, curbing speculation of a high-level plot to oust the embattled leader.
Labour lost a mid-term parliamentary seat last week to the Conservatives for the first time since 1978. Coming after a drubbing in local elections earlier in May, media talk about a challenge to Brown has been rife.
However health minister Alan Johnson and foreign minister David Miliband, the two men most often cited as potential rivals, both rejected the idea of a contest and said Brown was the best man for the job.
“The whole issue of the leadership is settled,” Johnson told the BBC. “There is absolutely no appetite, I believe, in the party to change the leader. Gordon Brown was a towering figure a year ago and is the towering figure in the party now.”
Brown took over from Tony Blair last year and does not have to hold a national election until May 2010. But voter concerns about a slowing economy, rising fuel and food prices and a botched tax reform have severely dented Brown’s popularity.
The Conservatives are now firm favourites to win a national election and some Labour MPs said last week their party does not stand a chance as long as Brown remains in charge.
Johnson was named in the Sunday Times as one of the leading cabinet members ready to desert Brown. It also said Miliband was preparing to join a leadership contest.
“This does qualify as fiction,” Miliband told Sky News. “Gordon was elected as the right man for the job last year and he’s the right man for the job this year.
“The reality is that the government has taken some beatings. But the test is do we have the character, and the grit and then the policies and then vision to go forward and I believe we do.”
Even John Prescott, who was deputy prime under Tony Blair and has publicly criticised Brown’s character, said it was “nonsense” to suggest the prime minister should step aside and a contest would be “deadly” for Labour.
“Gordon Brown’s the best man to deal with the economy, stupid. Basically he knows what needs to be done. It is still the economy,” Prescott said.
Brown’s camp hopes the economy will weather the storm created by external factors such as high oil and food prices and the global credit crunch in time for the next election.
The economy grew at its slowest pace in three years in the first quarter of 2008 and inflation is forecast to rise near to 4 percent, limiting the central bank’s scope for interest rate cuts.
Cameron said last week the Conservative Party still had a huge amount of work to do to win the next general election and an opposition MP cautioned against complacency.
“I wouldn’t actually write off Mr Brown ... he remains a strong man, he remains a formidable opponent,” said Conservative MP Eric Pickles.
“I don’t think the Labour Party is finished by any stretch of the imagination.”
Editing by Giles Elgood