Brown faces poll drubbing

2009-06-02 11:26

London - Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces the threat of an electoral bloodbath this week as Britain votes in European and local elections, amid fresh questions over his future.

Voters mired in recession and angered at a political expenses scandal look set to punish his ruling Labour Party, polls indicate, while there are growing signs Brown will reshuffle his Cabinet after Thursday's ballots.

Labour's opinion poll fortunes have been at record lows for months, and there is talk Brown could face a leadership challenge in the wake of the dual election result.

But he seems in no mood to give up. Asked whether Labour MPs were calling for him to step aside after the polls, Brown said he was focused on cleaning up politics and fighting Britain's recession.

"They're not, because I've got a job to do," he told Sky News television on Monday, denying that some Labour MPs were talking of him quitting. "We've got work to do, we have got to clean up the system."

A Sunday Telegraph/ICM poll this week suggested Labour would come third in the European elections with just 17%, behind David Cameron's main opposition Conservatives and the third party, centrist Liberal Democrats.

This was the worst Brown's party had done in an opinion poll since 1987 and surveys on the local elections also predict a weak performance.

Labour support plunged

And a new poll on Monday showed Labour's support plunged by 10% in the last month: the Ipsos Mori survey put the Conservatives on 40%, while Labour was level with the Liberal Democrats on 18%.

Experts say it is fringe parties who could benefit, like the far-right British National Party (BNP) - tipped to gain its first member of the European parliament - and the Europhobic UK Independence Party.

Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics told reporters at a briefing ahead of the vote that the expenses scandal had caused a "remarkable and in fact unprecedented constitutional crisis".

"We are in a very strange position that has become like the death of Princess Diana, a very gripping-the-nation type emotion," he said.

If Brown does face a leadership challenge, his most likely challenger seems to be Alan Johnson, a charismatic former postman who is currently Health Secretary.

But most commentators predict he will hang on until the next general election, due by the middle of next year, and ignore Cameron's calls for a snap national poll.

Instead, he will likely reshuffle his Cabinet after Thursday's vote in a bid to relaunch his premiership.

'I unreservedly apologise'

Finance minister Alistair Darling, a long-term Brown ally who has led Britain's Treasury through recent turmoil including the part-nationalisation of Royal Bank of Scotland, could be among those switched to other jobs.

Darling is in the spotlight after allegations he claimed parliamentary allowances for a flat he let to tenants while also claiming living allowances for his home in Downing Street, which comes free with his job.

Amid fast-moving events, Darling late on Monday admitted it was a "mistake" and said he would repay £350. "I'm sorry about that, I unreservedly apologise," he said.

Brown, who has repeatedly voiced confidence in Darling, declined on Monday to predict whether he will remain in his job, saying: "I am not going to make any predictions about anything that is going to happen in the next week."

The revelations were reported by the Daily Telegraph, which has published leaked documents for the last three weeks detailing extravagant claims by MPs from the public purse for everything from moat cleaning to a duck island.

There are two main votes taking place Thursday in Britain.

One is for 34 English local councils and the other is for the European elections in which Britons will elect 72 lawmakers to the 736 member European Parliament, the only directly-elected European Union institution.

Results of the local elections will be announced on Friday but those for Europe will not come out until Sunday, to synchronise with other European countries, meaning an uncomfortable weekend of waiting for Brown.