Labour was on Friday a party on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as the Glasgow East by-election debacle sucked out whatever was left of the party’s morale after a gruelling political season.

There were frantic calls as Labour members sought support and solace from their colleagues. Party whips phoned around to try to restore calm. But in the end most of those phone calls revolved around the central question facing the party: should Gordon Brown lead the party into the next election?

Mr Brown acknowledged the fear stalking his party, talking at length for the first time of a Tory government taking power in 24 months’ time. In the unlikely event of Glasgow East being repeated across the country, David Cameron as prime minister would face a rump of about 20 Labour MPs in the Commons.

“This is a really, really serious situation for the Labour party,” said one senior party official, a loyalist not known for hyperbole. “People are pretty shell-shocked, they are weary, pissed-off and despairing.”

Many Labour MPs accept Mr Brown’s explanation that Glasgow East and other recent electoral defeats have much to do with the worsening economic situation, much of it global. But his failure to articulate a new strategy and self-inflicted blunders such as the 10p tax row leave him exposed.

“He keeps talking about the economy, but if you keep harnessing yourself to something you can’t really control, that’s bad politics,” says one senior Labour MP. “It’s madness.”

Though Labour MPs may be on holiday, the plotting against Mr Brown is still in full swing. But this was also the case after Labour lost the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, the London mayoral election and local elections in May. Is Mr Brown in serious trouble this time?

Before Glasgow East the prevailing mood over Labour was one of fatalism rather than rebellion. After Crewe, Labour MPs considered whether to ditch Mr Brown and decided – all things considered – they were probably stuck with him. Getting rid of the prime minister risked making matters even worse.

The rebels believe – or hope – that a defeat in Glasgow East is so shocking that it will prompt senior cabinet figures to tell Mr Brown it is time to go when Labour MPs return from their holidays in September. But there remain big problems in implementing such a strategy. First, there is no obvious successor. David Miliband, foreign secretary, would be the frontrunner, but his would not be the “stable and orderly” coronation that the Brownites oversaw when Tony Blair stood down.

There would almost certainly be a leadership contest, seeing Labour turning in on itself at a time when Britain’s economy is on the rocks. The public would not be impressed. Further, the plotters could not be sure Mr Miliband would win.

Jon Cruddas would be a credible candidate. Harriet Harman, a feminist who became deputy leader last year, might stand and could do well. But as she joked recently: “There aren’t enough airports in the country for all the men who would want to flee the country.”

Second, Mr Brown’s allies claim that if Labour changed its leader again in this parliament, the new prime minister would be morally obliged to hold an almost immediate general election. “Not many Labour MPs would fancy that at the moment,” said one Labour official. “Even if we could afford the campaign.”

One theory circulating among Labour MPs is that Mr Brown should be kept in place until next May’s local and European elections. If the party does badly, he could be ditched then. A general election could be held a few months later.

But who would wield the knife? Cabinet Blairites – including James Purnell, John Hutton, Ruth Kelly and David Miliband – might want to be rid of Mr Brown, but do not want blood on their hands. A Blairite counter-insurgency could spark Labour civil war. They would prefer a pair of “clean hands” to do the deed, namely Jack Straw, the cabinet’s most senior figure, and Geoff Hoon, chief whip. However, neither is lining up to be the executioner.

“Everyone is pointing at everyone else saying: ‘You do it’,” said one Labour official. “It may never happen.”

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