TWO former cabinet ministers yesterday called for a secret ballot to decide whether Gordon Brown should lead the Labour party into the general election, although the plot against the Prime Minister soon fizzled out.

Former health secretary Patricia Hewitt and ex-defence secretary Geoff Hoon wrote to all Labour MPs urging them to back a secret ballot that would settle questions over Brown’s leadership “once and for all”.

“The Parliamentary Labour Party is deeply divided over the question of the leadership... The only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot,” Hoon and Hewitt wrote in the round robin.

The attempted coup was timed to coincide with the first session of Prime Minister’s questions, and Brown was told of the putsch just minutes before he took to the despatch box.

Plotters had hoped the letter would be supported by cabinet ministers that harbour private doubts about the Prime Minister’s leadership, but in that respect the plan failed.

Although the usual suspects like Frank Field and former home secretary Charles Clarke were quick to support Hoon and Hewitt, most big hitting cabinet ministers eventually gave their full backing to Brown.

Alistair Darling said that he and the Prime Minister yesterday met to discuss the economic recovery. “I won’t be deflected from that,” he added.

And business secretary Lord Mandelson said: “No-one should overreact to this initiative. It is not led by members of the government. No-one has resigned from the government. The Prime Minister continues to have the support of his colleagues.”

Other senior cabinet ministers, including justice secretary Jack Straw, foreign secretary David Miliband and home secretary Alan Johnson also gave Brown their full backing, although it took several hours for them to do so.

With just four months to go until a general election that is expected to be held on 6 May, this week was seen by anti-Brown plotters as the last chance to stage a credible coup.