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MPs ponder the unthinkable - Rudd

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Chief Political Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald

View more articles from Lenore Taylor

Kevin Rudd ... the Labor party may be forced to show some contrition if no other viable alternates arise.

Kevin Rudd ... the Labor party may be forced to show some contrition if no other viable alternates arise. Photo: Getty Images

SENIOR Labor figures agree Julia Gillard has just weeks to shore up her leadership, and that she may not. But they can't agree on what should happen if she doesn't.

Having clawed down their most electorally viable ''plan B'' - Kevin Rudd - by publicly describing him as an erratic, disdainful, dithering egomaniac just two months ago, the caucus is now going around in circles trying to decide whether there is any ''plan C''.

Stephen Smith is mentioned as a ''safe pair of hands'' but the counter-argument is that ideally, any safe hands should have a very well-known face attached to them. Some in Victoria mention Simon Crean in the same vein, but this is dismissed by many who served under him in opposition. Others speak of Bill Shorten, but relative ministerial inexperience and a young family means this is unlikely to be his time.

The caucus mood has shifted from despair to sheer panic after its members spent the recess in their electorates.

Without a ''plan C'', some of those persuaded to vote against Kevin Rudd in February are reconsidering, with trepidation and no great enthusiasm. Could he possibly be disinterred from what was supposed to be his political grave? What would the factional and political costs of that be? Would he demand changes in the operation of the factions and the party? Would he really be better than Gillard or would voters get as angry as NSW voters did with the revolving door of leaders imposed there?

It would take 21 caucus members to change their mind. On current polling many more MPs than that are dead certain to lose their seats at the next election.

There is still an outside hope Gillard can stabilise things - and the government is throwing its all at trying to make this happen.

And there is a necessity to back her at least until after the politically difficult budget and the weeks in which she and her team are supposed to ''sell'' it.

But it will be incredibly difficult for that sales pitch to project competence, authority and stability, because when a government has a one-vote majority, every time one Green or independent declines to support a piece of legislation every other independent can make its passage contingent upon their demands. Budgets always run the gauntlet of a Senate negotiation, but this time it could look more like unseemly four- or five-way horse-trading.

Gillard's closest supporters are playing for time - arguing that any thought of change should be pushed back in the year because of the danger that it could precipitate an election. That could be to give her another chance, but its also gives caucus more time to find another option.

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