“How Johnson became the model Labour candidate for the top job,” was The Independent on Sunday’s headline on coverage of the party’s most recent leadership dilemmas.

According to many commentators our great leader, health secretary Alan Johnson, has emerged as the leading candidate for the increasingly discussed albeit unavailable post.

In 2007 - when previously mooted as an alternative to Gordon Brown - Alan Johnson dismissed his chances as akin to “putting the Beagle on Mars - a nice idea but doomed to failure”, the paper recalled.

But in an interview with The Times on Saturday he declined to rule out a leadership bid - prompting a flurry of coverage in the next day’s papers.

“Everyone likes him, goes the logic,” wrote Sunday Times columnist Martin Ivens. “MPs are discussing the possibility of Mr Johnson taking over,” The Independent observed.

Former minister Kate Hoey told The Sunday Telegraph: “I think if there was one person who could do something to bring us all together it’s probably Alan Johnson.”

An “exclusive” in the Sunday Express, rather more radically, declared Mr Johnson was “being lined up to act as emergency prime minister amid growing concerns among Labour MPs about Gordon Brown’s state of mind”.

A calming of nerves over swine flu, meanwhile, has not only given the papers more space for speculation about the Labour leadership, but allowed the health secretary to put himself in a good light as he makes statesmanlike appearances on television.

He told Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning BBC One show: “The message is, have a good bank holiday weekend - relax, keep calm and carry on.”

Responding to the following, inevitable questions about the prime minister’s job, Mr Johnson insisted he did not aspire to be leader.

But pushed on whether he would stand - in what Monday’s Sun interpreted as a “bombshell” - he conceded: “I’m not saying there are no circumstances.”