After resignations, a reshuffle and rebellion, few at the first meeting Tuesday morning of Gordon Brown's new cabinet can have felt too secure about their place at the table. Britain's Prime Minister among them. Hours after Labour slumped to third place in the European elections it fared just as dismally in last week's local council votes Brown fended off irate rebels at a closed-door meeting of party legislators Monday night billed as a showdown over the prime minister's future.
Inside committee room 14 of the House of Commons, half a dozen MPs stood up and told Brown to step down. The agitators were heard in silence, though. Many of those present instead cheered and banged their desks in support of the beleaguered leader. In return, a humbled Brown pledged to be more consultative and transparent with his party. "I have my strengths and my weaknesses," he said in the stiflingly warm room, packed to the gills with Labour MPs and peers. "I am going to play to my strengths and address my weaknesses." By morning, the air was clearer. "The Labour Party does not want a new leader," Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced to the BBC. "There is no vacancy. There is no challenger." (See pictures of Brown as he prepared to become Prime Minister.)
Brown's "case for unity", as he described it during last night's meeting, would seem to bring to an end for now, at least the rudderless efforts to unseat the Prime Minister. In light of Labour's collapse in the Euro poll, wavering MPs were probably spooked by the prospect of a general election. (Imposing a second successive unelected P.M., the assumption goes, would be one too many for the electorate to swallow, making a national poll inevitable.) Rebellion was stymied, too, by a failure of the disgruntled to unite behind a policy agenda or a credible successor. When Alan Johnson and Miliband the two leading contenders for the role took plum jobs in Brown's reshuffled cabinet last week, the likelihood of such a move waned. (See the top 10 most outrageous British expense claims.)
But none of that puts Brown in the clear. According to a poll published Tuesday in Britain's Independent newspaper, the opposition Conservatives consistently double-digits ahead of Labour in recent opinion polls would nonetheless fall six seats short of a majority in any general election with the genial Johnson as Labour's P.M. With Brown still at the helm, the Tories would romp home 74 seats to the good. More evidence of that nature or defeat in either of the two tricky by-elections Labour faces in the coming months, following the resignation of a pair of its own MPs could yet prompt dissenters to push for a new leader in the fall. With Brown, says Neil Stewart, once political secretary to former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, "that connection is not there and that connection is not an optional thing in modern politics, as Obama has demonstrated." (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's election win.)
And while doubts remain about Labour's chosen medium, Brown's bigger challenge remains the message. "You simply cannot solve these problems through changes at the top," Brown told Labour parliamentarians Monday night. In that sense, he's right: the party ought to stand and fall on its vision and policies more than the P.M.'s style of leadership. That it doesn't owes much to the prolonged absence of any big plan from Brown. The Prime Minister shelved plans for an election only months after taking over from Tony Blair in 2007 a vote he would have likely won in part because he wanted to set out his much talked about vision. It's still not clear exactly what that is. "I don't know whether it was naivete, such was the robotic culture in the Labour party about loyalty, but a lot of people like me went along with what went on two years ago [Brown's installation, unopposed, as Blair's successor] in the belief that there was going to be this new mission," says a Labour insider and former special adviser from the Blair era. "It never came." (See pictures of polarizing politicians at LIFE.com.)
On leaving Monday's meeting with the Prime Minister, one MP lamented missing "10 minutes of Coronation Street". Just like the popular British soap opera, the saga over Brown's future looks set to run and run.
With reporting by Catherine Mayer / London