AFEW weeks back, one of Gordon Brown’s strongest supporters in the national Press wrote a column quoting a Labour MP as saying that the Prime Minister would not now fight the next general election.
The unnamed MP told columnist Jackie Ashley that Mr Brown would stand down at some point in the next two and a half years rather than risk defeat by David Cameron.
It is significant that this startling claim, which went oddly unnoticed by the rest of the media, came before the David Abrahams affair, which has since sent the Government’s reputation plummeting further.
If that’s what MPs were saying then, it’s hardly surprising that the Labour leadership is now once again becoming the talk of the tearooms at Westminster.
As Fraser Nelson in the Spectator magazine put it this week: “Life is finally returning to the corridors of the House of Commons. A journalist on patrol can once again gather intelligence from the clusters of MPs holding impromptu crisis meetings.
“Two themes dominate. One is the scale of the disaster. The other is whether Gordon Brown will be around long enough to fight the next general election.”
That this subject is even being discussed this early into Mr Brown’s premiership is evidence of the collapse in the Prime Minister’s authority in the weeks since the end of the party conference season.
But the same MPs who just six months ago were content to give the former Chancellor a clear run at the party leadership are now openly starting to question whether he is the right man.
In last week’s column, I concluded that the Abrahams affair had almost certainly put paid to one of the central aims of Mr Brown’s premiership – to restore trust in British politics. This week has brought little respite for the Prime Minister, with suggestions that knowledge of the “Donorgate” scandal went far wider than ex-general secretary Peter Watt.
At the same time, the Government’s attempts at compromise over the detention-without-trial row seem to have fallen on stony ground with Labour’s backbench rebels.
Mr Brown is facing the prospect of his first Commons defeat on the issue just seven months into his premiership. It took more than eight years for the same thing to happen to Tony Blair.
Speculation that Mr Brown will not lead Labour into a 2009 or 2010 election campaign has arisen partly from a succession of below-par performances at Prime Minister’s Questions.
In his younger days, Mr Brown used to dominate the Commons. As shadow trade and industry secretary in the early 1990s, he regularly used to tear the Tory government to shreds.
But up against David Cameron, he now seems an oddly diminished figure, much to the surprise of those of us who believed he would make his greater experience and gravitas count.
Instead of swatting the Tory leader away like an irritating fly, he appears to have let him get under his skin, frequently becoming rattled rather than exuding the calm authority the public expects.
It has all lent itself to a general feeling among MPs that, having schemed and plotted to get the job for so long, Mr Brown has now found he doesn’t actually enjoy being Prime Minister.
As the veteran Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell put it, maybe it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for”.
Others drop dark hints that Mr Brown’s health isn’t what it was, that he lacks the physical resilience to thrive on confrontation in the way that, say, Margaret Thatcher used to.
This was one thing they never said about Mr Blair, even when his mysterious heart ailment turned out to be more serious than Downing Street spin doctors had initially led us to believe.
At the moment, the talk is more of the order of low-level muttering than active plotting, but as someone said earlier this year: “Today’s tearoom conversations become tomorrow’s leadership contests.”
And while the overwhelming likelihood is still that Mr Brown will survive, there is some political logic to the suggestions that he could ultimately decide to throw in the towel.
The Prime Minister has already made it clear he does not intend to hold an election before spring 2009, but he could, if he wanted to, wait until 2010.
If between now and then the political situation for Labour does not improve, he may conclude that there is little to be gained, either for him or for the party, from staying on.
One very good reason that the talk has not become more serious is the absence of an obvious alternative to Mr Brown among the younger ranks of ministers.
The two names most frequently talked about in the “next generation” are South Shields MP David Miliband and Schools Secretary Ed Balls, but neither has done himself any favours of late.
Mr Miliband was seen by Mr Blair as a potential successor, but his performance as Foreign Secretary thus far suggests his own assessment of his capabilities was correct. He is not ready for the top job.
As for Mr Balls, in my view he is over-promoted as it is. He should go back to being a backroom boy and leave the front-line politics to his rather more gifted wife, Yvette Cooper.
But if the absence of a serious rival is one silver lining for Mr Brown, another lies in that phrase “today’s tearoom conversations become tomorrow’s leadership contests”.
Why? Because that comment was originally made not in the context of Mr Brown’s current troubles, but in relation to Mr Cameron, at a time when his leadership was under threat earlier this year.
Since then, the situation has changed utterly – which only goes to show that it could yet change back again.
It’s not going to be easy for Mr Brown to turn things round. But if the events of the last few weeks have taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected.