A close cabinet ally of Gordon Brown made a plea for cabinet “unity” on Friday, amid a wave of speculation over who might be Labour leader after the next election.

Douglas Alexander, international development secretary, urged his colleagues to concentrate on “getting Britain through the downturn” rather than talking up their own leadership prospects.

“Securing that fourth term will require unity, effort and innovation,” Mr Alexander said. He added that activists “want the direction and focus of the cabinet’s efforts to be getting Britain through the downturn”. The implicit rebuke to some of his colleagues came as a PoliticsHome poll showed Jack Straw, the justice secretary, emerging as the public’s choice to succeed Mr Brown, followed by David Miliband, the foreign secretary.

Mr Alexander’s plea followed private criticism of several cabinet members seen as being “on manoeuvres”, including Harriet Harman, the equalities minister, and Ed Balls, the children’s minister.

Hazel Blears, the communities secretary, on Thursday warned cabinet colleagues to stop putting their own future ahead of the nation. “My message to my colleagues is simple: get a grip. Our first loyalty is to the British people. If they think that we are more interested in our own jobs than theirs, they will not forgive us,” she said.

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