Labor MPs say a showdown between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd is inevitable and could come as early as three weeks from now as rattled Labor MPs digest the latest, devastating poll for the government.
Faith in the Prime Minister's 2013 re-election strategy has evaporated after the primary vote slipped back to 30 per cent in the latest Fairfax-Nielsen poll, erasing recent gains and widening the lead of the Coalition to 17 points.
Gillard trending down: Pollster
Worrying numbers for the Gillard government in the first Fairfax/Nielsen poll of 2013. John Stirton discusses the results.
After spending time in their electorates canvassing the mood of their constituents, MPs will return to Canberra on March 12. Some are grimly accepting that the leadership question may again have to be visited.
That could throw the September 14 election timetable into doubt and potentially put at risk the stability of Labor's majority in the House of Representatives.
Most senior ministers contacted on Monday appeared to be sticking with the Prime Minister but many said the numbers in the poll could not be ignored.
''It's simple arithmetic,'' said one. ''We can't go to an election with these numbers.''
Asked if the situation would come to a head when Parliament resumed, one minister responded: ''I don't see how it can't''.
He said he remained loyal to Ms Gillard but conceded there had been a discernible shift in momentum towards Mr Rudd in the past fortnight.
However, he also said Mr Rudd's case for the leadership had been undermined as MPs in marginal seats recognised his public utterances as self-serving and destructive.
The Arts and Regional Development Minister, Simon Crean, an outspoken critic of Mr Rudd in last year's leadership ballot, was one of the few to go on the record about Mr Rudd.
Mr Crean, himself a former Labor leader, said: ''I don't think it's a question of telling him to shut up,'' he said. ''I think it's a question of ensuring that he stays on the issue, rather than just having the perception that it's a thinly disguised effort to promote him as the alternative leader.''
Labor MPs were rocked by the poll, which showed the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, ahead of Ms Gillard as preferred prime minister, jumping nine points to 49 per cent with her support slipping by five points to 45 per cent.
It followed a poor start to the election year for Labor, which was marred by policy and political errors, the failure of the mining tax, and the prominent emergence of Mr Rudd even as he called on people to ''take a cold shower'' over the leadership.
Mr Rudd was in Victoria on Monday for what his office described as ''private'' functions and was not commenting on the polls. He holds a decisive lead over Ms Gillard as preferred ALP leader, 61 per cent to 35, according to the poll.
Ms Gillard refused to discuss the poll on Monday as she spruiked the government's latest initiative, the $1 billion ''Industry and Innovation Statement''.
Senior Liberals welcomed the poll findings just months before the election, but played down claims it was the result of Mr Abbott hiding his negative side.
The manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, said the Coalition's 17-point lead on primary votes showed Mr Abbott had what voters want.