This will be a long, cold autumn for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. With polling at rock bottom, an appalling run of bad press, blunders and deep rumblings among her backbenchers, the sound of knives on whetstones is growing louder.

While most talk of a coup is from anonymous MPs, former Labor leader and Regional Development Minister Simon Crean was moved to publicly warn Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd off any move to take back from Gillard the leadership he lost in 2010.

Other senior ministers, including those considered most likely to contend any leadership ballot, have equally as loudly rejected a challenge and have pledged loyalty to the beleaguered Prime Minister.

But nothing can stop the speculation. There have been some suggestions that Gillard should herself declare the leadership open for ballot within the next few weeks in the hope of catching Rudd before he musters sufficient numbers, thereby sinking his chances.


But most observers believe the danger period for Gillard will come between the March 24 Queensland State election and Parliament's May budget session.

Queensland's Labor Government is facing almost certain defeat, and whatever slim chance Premier Anna Bligh does have of holding power would be completely wiped by a bloody federal leadership brawl.

Parliament rises two days before the election, and does not sit again until May. On the theory that coups are far more difficult to arrange - and less likely to succeed - when forces are scattered, the budget session would seem to be the next real opportunity for action.

In the intervening weeks, Gillard and Rudd will run the numbers in caucus. At present Gillard appears to have more than Rudd, but a fair slice of these are MPs who prefer anyone to the Foreign Minister.

Rudd does have significant support and there is a large bloc of uncommitted votes that will be watching developments carefully.

Three other potential challengers have been floated: Crean, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, and Industrial Relations Minister Bill Shorten, a fast-rising star.

But none has real public support and Shorten, especially, would be reluctant to make a move so early in his career that could kill his longer-term ambitions: given Labor's death-watch status in the polls, the leadership is likely to be a poisoned chalice.

Tomorrow Gillard's run for survival will start with an extraordinary caucus meeting before the opening of the parliamentary year on Tuesday.

Her immediate job will be to convince MPs she can turn Labor's fortunes around, despite record polling lows and a calamitous start to the year: her reneging on a deal on poker machines with key independent Andrew Wilkie and his dumping of support for Labor; the Australia Day riot and the role played by media adviser Tony Hodges; allegations of interference in an investigation into the allegedly improper financial dealings of backbencher Craig Thomson.

Gillard's strategy is to focus on policy and the economy, which remains one of the world's strongest. She needs to get her carbon and mining taxes up and running, and present a tight, responsible budget.

This week she announced more support for the car industry and reform of vocational education to provide the nation with more skilled workers.

But Gillard has had trouble getting her message across, and may continue to do so in the noise of leadership speculation. Gillard is also widely regarded as a backstabber for knifing Rudd - even though Rudd was also hugely unpopular - and as a liar for backflipping on her election promise not to introduce a carbon tax.

Rudd's public image, on the other hand, has been washed clean by time and Gillard's woes. He has staunchly refused to comment on leadership speculation other than to express solidarity and has allowed others to do the running for him.

The anger and unpopularity that marked the later days of his prime ministership have, for the moment at least, largely been forgotten, while he has enlarged his public profile with global grandstanding as Foreign Minister and, this week, campaigning for Bligh in Queensland.

Caucus support, Rudd backers hope, will flow to him naturally as Gillard's problems continue.

But MPs will also be considering the realities: public reaction to yet more bloodshed within a severely wounded and internally destructive party; probable desertions by senior ministers, either to the backbench or even out of Parliament; resentment among MPs who loath Rudd.

And there is the most basic question of all - would Rudd Mark 2 be any different from the prime minister who took Labor from ecstatic heights to disastrous lows within a year of winning power?

On Sky TV, former Labor power broker Graham Richardson gave his verdict: "Everything will not be wonderful, because the ructions within the party will be even worse than they are now".

Internal combustion Kevin Rudd's chances of rolling Julia Gillard
Former Labor Leader and Regional Development Minister Simon Crean on Rudd: "He can't be prime minister again. People will not elect as leaders those they don't perceive as team players."

Rudd on Crean and his role in the Cabinet: "I am proud to be a member of this ministerial team, which is very strong, very dedicated, very hardworking and in which Simon himself plays a very positive role."

Gillard on Rudd: "Kevin Rudd is doing a great job as Minister for Foreign Affairs."

Industrial Relations Minister and potential challenger Bill Shorten: "Everyone knows that I'm a very strong supporter of our Prime Minister. I think she's a very strong leader and in tough times you need strong leaders."

Defence Minister Stephen Smith, also considered a potential usurper: "I make the same point today as I have in the past: there's no vacancy. I'm a strong supporter of the Prime Minister."

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet: "I lose patience with people who are talking to journalists [about the leadership] and there's no name attached to it and you wonder who on earth it was."

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott: "Look, all the signs are there. It is a very, very restless caucus. In the end it's up to the Labor Party to choose which failed leader it wants to take into the election."