While this would please many within Labour, including some Cabinet ministers, the party’s rules and complex voting system mean that his departure would create a constitutional and political minefield.
Even if Mr Brown could be persuaded to stand aside, the process for electing a replacement is so lengthy that Labour would be without a leader, and, potentially, the country without a prime minister, for weeks or even months.
During the height of the Lib Dem surge in the opinion polls last month, there were suggestions that Nick Clegg could be installed as prime minister at the head of a Lib-Lab Cabinet.
The poor performance of the third party has put paid to those ambitions, but Mr Clegg’s antipathy to Mr Brown remains. He made it clear during the campaign that he would find it impossible to work with him.
One Liberal Democrat insider said: “Gordon just doesn’t get it – he lost, he’s over, he’s not going to be prime minister any more.”
While the Lib Dems are considering a deal with the Conservatives, many within the party are convinced that, given their policy differences, Labour remains the only viable coalition partner.
They are clinging to the hope that senior Labour figures will find an emergency means of getting around the rules and installing a leader who is acceptable to them. They were given hope yesterday by Lord Mandelson, who appeared to imply that a way could be found to install a new leader more swiftly. Asked by Sky News if a Labour minority or coalition government that did not have Mr Brown as prime minister was inconceivable, Lord Mandelson said: “Frankly there are quite a number of permutations. I am not ruling out or ruling in anything.”
Under normal circumstances, Labour leaders are selected by an electoral college of MPs, constituency members and trade union members, the last two having their say by postal ballot, in a contest which traditionally culminates at Labour’s annual conference – which does not take place until September. If Mr Brown refused to stand aside, the picture would be even more unclear, as Labour’s rules are specifically designed to prevent a challenge to a sitting leader.
To dislodge him, 20 per cent of the new parliamentary party would have to back a potential challenger.
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