Brown battles in face of revolt

2009-06-05 07:47

London - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was battling for his political life on Friday after a third senior minister quit his government and urged Brown to stand down to avert an election defeat.

The resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell, announced in a letter printed by The Times newspaper, was a direct attack on Brown's authority and increased the possibility of a challenge to his leadership.

Early results pointed to heavy losses for Brown's Labour party in Thursday's local elections, heaping yet more pressure on the embattled prime minister.

With an increasing number of Labour politicians openly calling for Brown to go, analysts said the prime minister could be fatally wounded.

Poor results in elections to the European Parliament, held on Thursday but not due for release until Sunday, could be the final blow, Simon Lee, a politics expert at Hull University, said.

"Even if between now and Sunday, no other Cabinet minister follows Purnell's example, if results are as bad as seems likely it will be very hard for Gordon Brown to survive," he told Reuters.

Voters are feeling pain from the worst recession since World War II and many wanted to punish Labour, in power since 1997, for a scandal over politicians' abuse of their expense accounts.

The opposition Conservatives, who lead Labour by up to 20 percentage points in opinion polls, stepped up calls for an immediate national election, saying Brown's government was "paralysed".

Some commentators likened Brown's situation to that of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was forced out in 1990 after a key minister resigned.

Call to step down

Purnell, a rising Labour star, told Brown he believed his leadership made it more likely the centre-right Conservatives would win a national election, due in the next year.

"I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning," he wrote.

Purnell said he was not seeking the party leadership but his dramatic intervention could embolden a challenger to emerge.

Purnell was the third Cabinet minister this week to resign, following communities minister Hazel Blears and Britain's first female interior minister Jacqui Smith.

His resignation deepened splits in Labour ranks.

News reports said up to 75 Labour members of parliament - around a fifth of the total - were ready to sign a letter calling on Brown to go, even before Purnell's announcement.

Labour member of parliament Barry Sheerman told the BBC there should be a ballot of Labour MPs to see if Brown should stay on as leader. Two other Labour politicians, Graham Allen and Siobhain McDonagh, urged Brown to step down.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson is seen as the front-runner to replace Brown. The BBC's Newsnight programme reported that he had a "structure in place" for a leadership campaign.

Several ministers rallied to Brown's defence. Tessa Jowell, the minister in charge of the 2012 London Olympics, said it was not in the country's best interests to have a party leadership election now.

The few local election results released pointed to a drubbing for Labour, in power nationally for 12 years. The party suffered its worst local election result in the southwestern city of Bristol for at least 25 years.

Voters are furious that members of parliament from Labour and other parties took advantage of generous expenses to claim for household goods, gardening or cleaning their swimming pools.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair as prime minister two years ago, has struggled to give a sense of direction to the government. He will try to reassert his authority, as early as Friday, by announcing a cabinet reshuffle.

A reshuffle may not end instability. Brown is considering replacing finance minister Alistair Darling with his long-time ally Ed Balls, seen by many in Labour as a divisive figure.