Brown faces leadership ballot call|
Jan. 06, 2010
Published by Reuters
Keith Weir (Additional reporting by Matt Falloon, Tim Castle, Girish Gupta and Peter Griffiths; Editing by Louise Ireland)
LONDON (Reuters) - Two former cabinet ministers on Wednesday called for a secret ballot of MPs to decide if Prime Minister Gordon Brown should lead the Labour Party into an election due by June.
Brown's spokesman said the prime minister was "relaxed and getting on with the job," while senior ministers including the Chancellor Alistair Darling and Foreign Secretary David Miliband publicly backed their boss.
"No one should over-react," said Business Secretary Peter Mandelson. "The prime minister continues to have the support of his colleagues. We should carry on government business as usual."
The move brought to a head long-simmering discontent over Brown's leadership just months before an election which the Conservatives are expected to win. The most likely poll date is May 6 -- four months from today.
British financial markets largely shrugged off the challenge and analysts said they expected it to fizzle out.
The timing was a surprise as many commentators feel it is too late to replace Brown before the election and Labour has started to claw back some ground from the Conservatives in recent opinion polls. There is no obvious successor to Brown.
"Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this (leadership) question is affecting our political performance," Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt said in a letter to Labour members of parliament. "The only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot."
Hoon and Hewitt have served in a variety of government posts. However, Hewitt was planning to stand down at the next election and it is not clear how much support they command among Labour MPs beyond those who have long been critical of Brown.
CHALLENGE 'NOT WANTED'
As unusually heavy snow fell across the country and cloaked the houses of parliament, Labour figures said the challenge had little chance of gathering momentum and would soon melt away.
"It is not what the Parliamentary Labour Party wants nor frankly what the British public wants," Tony Lloyd, chairman of the parliamentary Labour Party told BBC television.
Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson, both often touted as possible Labour leaders, offered their support to Brown.
"I am working closely with the prime minister on foreign policy issues and support the re-election campaign for a Labour government that he is leading," Miliband said.
Brown served as chancellor for a decade under Tony Blair before replacing him mid-term in 2007. Brown's critics say he lacks charisma and his ratings have suffered during a deep recession and an increasingly bloody campaign in Afghanistan.
The Conservatives, seeking a return to power after 13 years, pressed their calls for an early election.
"Ministers are more concerned about saving their own political skin than actually getting Britain out of the monumental mess we are in," said party chairman Eric Pickles.
"We cannot go on like this. The only responsible thing the government can do is call a general election."
Political commentators said rebels had fluffed their chance of ousting Brown last June when several ministers, including Hoon, resigned but a rebellion petered out.
"Now, in an election year itself, to call for a secret ballot of the parliamentary party, looks hugely self-indulgent by two ministers who are on the downslope themselves in that the best of their career has gone, and I think that is the way the parliamentary party frankly will view this," said Jonathan Tonge, head of politics at Liverpool University.