LABOUR chiefs are planning a snap Glenrothes by- election as part of a desperate strategy to relaunch Gordon Brown's premiership.
Party chiefs are braced for another devastating poll defeat but believe holding the by-election early – with Thursday, September 11 the soonest possible date – would leave time for the Prime Minister to bounce back at Labour's conference later that month.
They fear that a defeat later in the year, after a relaunch, would act as a death-knell to Brown's chances of persuading his party that he is the right man to lead them to a fourth general election victory.
Labour's margin in Glenrothes is smaller than Glasgow East, which it lost to the SNP last month. Party insiders warned last week that losing Glenrothes as well, which neighbours Brown's own seat, would be the final straw for Brown.
The dilemma over the timing of the by-election – caused by the death last week of sitting MP John McDougall – comes as Downing Street prepares for a defining few weeks of Brown's premiership, with a major tax relief package, a reshuffle and a vital party conference to tackle.
One senior Government insider warned against delaying the poll date. He said: "Gordon could come through the party conference, have a successful relaunch and get back on track only to throw it all away by losing a by-election in November.
"We should do it now before the MPs are back at Westminster. If we lost in November, with MPs all back, no-one knows what would happen."
Another senior Scottish party insider said: "He should do it as quickly as possible. It is clear that the longer you leave it, the more momentum the SNP will get."
Out of respect, opposition parties are holding back from demands for a quick poll until after McDougall's funeral tomorrow. But Labour is expected to come under fierce attack from opponents next week if it does not hold the by-election quickly.
Labour's problems in the seat have been illustrated by a Scotland on Sunday survey of 72 polling stations in the Glenrothes area from last year's Scottish Parliament elections.
In the 2005 General Election, Labour trounced the SNP in the seat, with 19,395 votes to the SNP's 8,731 votes.
However, the survey of votes cast last year for Holyrood in Glenrothes, Leslie, Markinch, Kennoway, Windygates, and Kirkcaldy shows that the SNP won 9,968 votes compared with Labour's 9,107.
The town of Glenrothes itself voted SNP by 4,984 votes to Labour's 4,054 votes.
Bookmakers have already established the SNP has the 4-1 on favourites to win the seat this time round.
The SNP is almost certain to choose Fife Council leader Peter Grant as its candidate for the by-election.
However, the identity of Labour's candidate is far from certain. Former first minister Henry McLeish has been strongly linked with the seat. He was MP for the Central Fife seat, a forerunner to the Glenrothes constituency prior to the creation of the Scottish Parliament.
But party sources have indicated that local Fife councillor Mark Hood will also be a strong contender. Labour MSP John Park has also been linked to the seat.
McDougall's funeral is to take place tomorrow in Burntisland, Fife, and is likely to be attended by the Prime Minister, who is holidaying at his home in Fife.
A long-standing friend of the Prime Minister's, McDougall, 60, died last Tuesday after a long battle with mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer.