With election looming, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces leadership challenge

By Jill Lawless, AP
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

2 former UK govt ministers challenge Gordon Brown

LONDON — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown fought off a challenge to his leadership Wednesday from two senior figures in his Labour Party as the party moved quickly to quash the revolt. But the challenge exposed a badly divided party months before a national election that polls predict it will lose.

Two former Labour Cabinet members sent a letter to fellow Labour lawmakers calling for a secret ballot on Brown’s leadership. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt said in the letter that grumbling about Brown’s performance was dividing the party at the worst possible time.

“Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance,” they said in the letter, which they released to the media. “We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot,” they wrote, referring to the Labour lawmakers.

Hewitt said the letter was “not an attempted coup,” but would not say whether she would back Brown if a vote were held.

Labour officials and most senior ministers moved to shore up Brown’s position. Several Cabinet ministers traipsed before TV cameras to declare their support for the prime minister.

Home Secretary Alan Johnson, seen as a possible successor as premier, said: “Gordon Brown is the best man to lead the Labour Party.”

“I respect Patricia and Geoff a great deal but I do not support their proposal,” Johnson said.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he supports the re-election of a Labour government led by Brown, and Labour’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said party members were united in their determination to see Brown lead the party to victory in the election.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said Brown “continues to have the support of his colleagues and we should carry on government business as usual.”

Brown’s supporters said a leadership vote would make the party look divided and dash any hopes of an election win.

The prime minister’s office downplayed the significance of the letter, saying Brown “is relaxed and getting on with his job.”

The Labour Party said in a statement that “there is no provision for a secret ballot of MPs (lawmakers) within the Labour Party constitution or rules.”

Britain must hold an election by June, and opinion polls give the opposition Conservatives a big lead over Labour, which has been in power since 1997. Brown’s opponents within Labour say his lackluster performance will ensure electoral defeat.

Unseating Brown would have meant a quick party leadership contest and sending an untested leader into a national election.

Brown replaced Tony Blair when he stepped down as prime minister in June 2007, and has never faced voters in an election as leader. Many within his party doubt the taciturn Brown has the popular appeal to win. Opponents say Brown is tainted by the economic crisis — he was Treasury chief for 10 years until 2007 — and by a scandal over lawmakers’ inflated expenses that outraged the public.

Brown already has faced a series of challenges to his authority from within a fractious Labour Party.

Most dramatically, in June he saw a flurry of Cabinet resignations designed to encourage a rival contender to challenge his leadership. The most likely successors — Johnson and Foreign Secretary David Miliband — backed Brown, and that rebellion fizzled.

Hoon held several Cabinet posts, including defense secretary, until quitting government last year. Hewitt is a former health secretary who has said she will not run for re-election.

Conservatives were quick to capitalize on Wednesday’s letter. Party Chairman Eric Pickles said it was “irresponsible to have such a dysfunctional, faction-ridden Labour Party running the country.”

“We cannot go on like this,” he said. “The only responsible thing the government can do is call a general election.”

(This version CORRECTS paragraph 2 to say two former Cabinet members instead of members of Brown’s Cabinet.)

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