Why are so many of the brightest in the Labour Party prepared to settle for second best? A number of ministerial names have been linked with the imminent vacancy for the deputy leadership. Ordinarily, one would expect the energies being diverted to deputy leadership bids to be directed towards campaigns for the leadership itself. But besides the maverick John McDonnell, not a single candidate appears ready to take on the Chancellor, whom it is assumed will acquire the leadership as if by divine right.
For Labour, and the country, the assumption that Gordon Brown should succeed with the minimum of fuss is a missed opportunity. There is a growing recognition among Labour MPs that letting Brown take over will be settling for second best. It doesn't have to be that way.
Naturally, some Labour people will doubt the good faith of a Tory offering them advice. But one of the things I have found during my brief time in the Commons is that MPs can often speak more freely to others, outside their party, who are at a distance from some of the issues where passions are engaged.
Even among Labour MPs who give his Chancellorship high marks there is a growing scepticism about Brown's fitness for the highest office. When I have asked why people seem so accepting of his inevitable succession, the answers seem merely to underline his weaknesses. We have to let him have it because his rage at being denied would break the party; anyone who dared to support a rival candidate would be visited with a terrible vengeance, bringing their career to an end. If that is true, it raises further doubts as to whether he has the character a prime minister needs.
As someone who served, albeit in a junior capacity, in a recent leadership campaign, I am surprised that Labour MPs haven't realised what a good chance a credible alternative would have of toppling the apparent front-runner. Brown's weaknesses are obvious. Every measure of public opinion shows that Labour would fall further behind the Tories if Brown were party leader. The Chancellor is intolerant of views that differ from his own, and tries to manage others' work. That modus operandi has created a pool of potential anti-Brown voters. It also underlines the brittleness of his strengths as a potential national leader.
Momentum beats mass
If I were running a rival campaign, whether for Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn, or even John Reid, the hot candidate of the moment, I would offer my contender as a fresh figure better able to accomplish renewal than someone so closely tied to the past ten years. I would promise the party what it yearns for, and what Brown cannot deliver: a more open and pluralist style of management and policy-making. I would ask colleagues to reflect on the turmoil over Iraq, tuition fees, foundation hospitals and the Education Bill, and ask if they think the man who allowed his supporters to oppose these moves while he supported them, late and weakly, really had the qualities required of a leader.
I would launch my campaign with support from the most talented Blairites, who'd have to be part of any future government - such as, say, James Purnell - with voices from the pluralist left, such as Chris Mullin or John Denham, and with loyalist fixers who convey seriousness of intent, such as Tom Watson. And I'd be able to reassure them that going public was the best protection against purges. If we put up a creditable performance, Brown couldn't marginalise us, for fear of looking petty and reinforcing his reputation for tribalism.
I'd know that the unions would be far from sewn up for Brown, not least after some of his recent noises about pensions. I would also emphasise to the general secretaries that it wouldn't be in their interests to deliver the leadership for Brown in the face of significant opposition from MPs and constituencies. A Brown who owed his premiership to union votes would be a Brown who would feel under pressure to show that he was not in the unions' pocket, and so be less amenable to union concerns than an alternative.
Once my candidate was up and running, the sheer fact that he was picking up support from alienated parliamentary opinion would give the campaign momentum. The mere hint that the unions were less than solid for Brown would give the impression that the front-runner was faltering as the new guy gathered pace. And, as we know from recent leadership campaigns, momentum beats mass.
It is because Gordon Brown's weaknesses are so obvious that I am concerned about the consequences of his premiership for the country. And it is because they are so obvious to so many of his colleagues that I am surprised they are ready to let a man lead their party who will ensure that, in any future election, Labour performs second best.
Michael Gove is Conservative MP for Surrey Heath and the author of a study of Islamist terror, "Celsius 7/7", published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£9.99)