PANICKING Labour ministers are considering a 'suicide election' to give the party a fresh start under a new leader, following their humiliating defeat at the hands of the SNP in the Glasgow East by-election.
Senior figures disillusioned with Gordon Brown want a senior Cabinet minister to take over the party leadership and head immediately to the polls either this autumn or next spring, even if defeat is the likely option.
They believe such a move would be better than Brown clinging on to office until 2010 when, they fear, the party would face a wipe-out on the scale of that inflicted on the Tories by Labour in 1997. Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor, is being touted as the ideal stop-gap leader.
There were claims last night that MPs close to Straw were actively seeking support on behalf of the Justice Secretary.
One Labour MP is reported as claiming that backbencher George Howarth had told him Straw was "ready to tell Gordon that the game was up" so long as he had enough backing.
The Justice Secretary's spokesman insisted last night, however, that Straw had "not sanctioned this behaviour", adding that MPs needed to "calm down" over the crisis.
One minister said: "The worst case scenario for the Labour Party is that we carry on with Gordon as leader and then have an election at the time of his choosing.
"If we got rid of him and went for an immediate option, that would still be a better result for us than waiting for him. There is no one in the Labour Party who is capable of running the party worse than him."
"This isn't about Gordon any more," said another senior party figure. "This is about the Labour Party and the number of people who are looking at their jobs."
Other reports suggested one contender for the job, James Purnell, had formed a pact with Foreign Secretary David Miliband, promising not to stand in his way if Miliband stood following a Brown resignation.
One senior Scottish party figure said of the 'suicide' option: "We get it over now and we don't allow the Tories to build a swing like the one we had in 1997. The way things are going, we are heading for a Tory Party victory on the scale of 1997."
Last night, one Government source opposed to Brown said: "The Cabinet now has to do something. What is Alistair Darling going to do and what is Jack Straw going to do? We have to get rid of him. There is no support for him staying."
Those who back deposing Brown say that, even if they were to lose the snap election, it would be better than staying on in power. They say David Cameron's Conservatives would be forced into power without having prepared enough for the tough economic times ahead.
The panic move has gained credence after Labour's stunning slide was confirmed when the party lost Glasgow East, its 25th safest seat in Britain, to the SNP by 365 votes.
Labour MPs south of the border are thought to be demanding that the party effectively gives up on Scotland and sets about trying to win back middle England.
Sources close to the Prime Minister claimed that plotters were effectively throwing in the towel to the Tories.
Brown is coming under increasing pressure to provide an immediate package of economic relief. Union leaders who gathered at the party's national forum in Warwick yesterday declared their backing for a windfall tax on energy companies whose profits have increased as prices have risen.
More bad news for Brown came last night in an opinion poll which showed Labour trailing in third place among voters in the Tories' top 30 target constituencies. The survey, carried out by analysts CrosbyTextor, saw Labour slump to just 17% – 24 points behind the Tories and one worse off than the Lib Dems.
It is a disastrous turnaround for the governing party, which had a six point lead in the same poll a year ago, when Brown was enjoying a honeymoon period as a new PM.