LONDON // Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown, resembled a dead politician walking yesterday after the third attempt in 18 months by his own Labour Party colleagues to get rid of him. The unexpected bid to oust him was launched on Wednesday afternoon by two former cabinet ministers who sent text messages to all Labour MPs calling for a leadership election to be held on Monday.
By yesterday afternoon, this latest effort to have Mr Brown replaced appeared to have fizzled out when no cabinet ministers - at least half a dozen known to be disgruntled with the prime minister's leadership - came out and supported it. But it left Mr Brown mortally wounded politically at the very moment he was launching Labour's bid to retain power at the general election expected in May, and at the very time his party's fortunes seemed to be improving.
Nobody knows why Geoff Hoon, former defence secretary, and Patricia Hewitt, ex-health secretary, chose now to make their move. According to Mr Hoon, it was a bid to clear the air and "unite" the party. He said that Labour was divided over Mr Brown's leadership and that a secret ballot of MPs was the best way to resolve the matter. "We were astonished when we heard about this," said a senior Labour Party activist yesterday. "Gordon had just given David Cameron [the leader of the opposition Conservatives] a mauling at Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons, our standing in the opinion polls is improving, and then we hear about Hoon and Hewitt.
"It does make you wonder about how many people in our party are determined to commit political suicide. Things have been going well for us recently but now, for the third time in less than two years, all the headlines are about leadership challenges and divisions within the party. Believe me, it is not what you need when you are trying to plan a strategy to win the next general election." Although only a few Labour MPs backed the leadership election call, Mr Brown was not helped by lukewarm endorsements from Cabinet colleagues.
Notably, David Miliband, the foreign secretary who is emerging as Mr Brown's heir apparent, took seven hours to come out with a statement condemning the Hoon-Hewitt initiative and, even then, it contained no ringing endorsement of Mr Brown or his leadership. "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," it said.
The BBC yesterday named six senior ministers - including Mr Miliband, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, and Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader - as "potential rebels" who would like to replace Mr Brown. None came out in support of this latest bid to oust him. Nick Robinson, political editor of the BBC, said yesterday: "One rebel who was involved in planning their revolt told me: 'We wanted to create a storm. Our purpose was to create the space for the cabinet to act. They bottled it.'"
Eric Joyce, a Labour MP, believed that Mr Hoon and Mrs Hewitt had been encouraged to act by a few senior Labour figures, though both denied it, claiming they had taken the decision to try and "clear the air". But Mr Joyce said: "I think it's fairly widely known that there are a few people who imagine, if they just sit there quietly, the backbenchers will deal with the work for them and they can, perhaps, inherit for a brief period the prime minister-ship. That has now passed."
The big winners from the latest debacle are Mr Cameron and his Conservatives. Earlier this week, they looked in trouble when Mr Cameron said that one of his party's key pre-election promises, involving tax breaks for married couples, would not be introduced into the new parliament session following the election because the country could not afford it. Within hours, the party was forced to issue a "clarification" saying that the tax breaks would indeed be introduced in the first parliament. Labour chortled that the Tories did not know what they were doing.
Such contradictions and confusion have been forgotten over the past two days, though, as the subject of Mr Brown's leadership has once more come to the fore. It showed that Labour were "completely divided" and that Mr Brown was in "deep trouble", Mr Cameron said yesterday, barely able to conceal his glee. "If ever there was a time when our country needed strong leadership and united government it is today," he said.
"We've got this massive budget deficit, we are at war in Afghanistan, we've got deep social problems and yet we've got a government completely divided. We cannot go on like this. We've got to have an election and a change of government." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org