British prime minister faces party showdown

Rebels within his ruling Labour Party are expected to decide the fate of embattled Britain Prime Minister Gordon Brown, shown here at a meeting in east London on Sunday.Stefan Rousseau / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced renewed challenges to his grip on power Monday after his ruling Labour Party suffered its worst electoral results in a century and another minister quit his government.

Brown's future appeared to rest on the outcome of a meeting Monday between the leader and several hundred Labour lawmakers from both houses of Parliament to discuss the dire election results. The legislators, packed into a crowded wood-paneled committee room, clapped loudly as Brown arrived to address the meeting.

Repeated applause and the stamping of feet could be heard from the private meeting. Labour House of Lords member George Foulkes left the meeting before it had concluded but said there had been strong support for Brown.

"There was great support for Gordon. Charles Clarke spoke and no one even put their hands together," Foulkes said, referring to former the former Home Secretary, one of Brown's leading critics.

Twelve disgruntled ministers have quit in the last week, undermining Brown and raising doubts about his authority. Rebels unhappy with Brown's leadership were expected to decide whether to mount an attempt to oust him following the talks.

'He wants to fight on'
"He wants to fight on," said Jane Kennedy, a junior environment minister who resigned Monday. "My fear is that it will be to the bitter end of the Labour Party. I think we are now in such a serious position that we really are fighting for the future of the party."

The party finished third in Britain in voting for representatives to the European Parliament, behind the main opposition party Conservatives and the U.K. Independence Party, an anti-European Union fringe group. The results, announced Sunday, were Labour's worst in a nationwide vote since 1910 — showing the damage wreaked by a scandal over lawmakers' excessive expense claims.

Local results in simultaneous elections for district and city hall assemblies wiped out Brown's party in parts of southern and central England, regions that helped former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair win three successive victories.

Brown tried to pre-empt the bad news with a hasty reconfiguration of his Cabinet last week — promoting loyalists and handing high-profile jobs to his likeliest successors. He pledged to refocus his legislative program on reviving the economy and cleaning up Britain's political system.

He is legally required to call a national election by June 2010, and Labour's drubbing at the polls this weekend has been read by most as a harbinger of catastrophic defeat. Britain's Conservatives are seen as virtually assured of returning to power for the first time since 1997.

A projection for the Sunday Times newspaper based on local election results suggested the Conservatives would win power with a majority of 34. Labour, which currently has a 63 seat majority, would lose about 140 seats — 40 percent of its total of 350 — according to the analysis.

"Labour cannot win with the present prime minister," Labour lawmaker Frank Field wrote on his Web site Monday.

Field had long predicted Brown would fail to match the electoral success of Blair. "But even I didn't think a Brown administration would be as inept as this one," he wrote.

Rebels need the backing of 71 of Labour's 350 lawmakers for a particular challenger to trigger a leadership contest, which would likely take about three weeks. Dissidents were expected to disclose the level of support for an ouster later on Monday.

Labour just 15 percent in EU vote
But some observers say the appalling result for Labour — the party won just 15 percent of the vote in the European parliamentary elections — make it more likely Brown will be able cling to his job. They calculate rebels may struggle to find a challenger if the party appears doomed to defeat at the next election.

Changing leaders — and thus prime ministers — would increase pressure to call an immediate national election, because the new leader, probably the affable Home Secretary Alan Johnson, would be Britain's second consecutive unelected prime minister. Brown himself was selected by the party to replace Blair in 2007.

John Grogan, a Labour lawmaker, said he'd told Brown in a conversation last week he had only a 50 percent chance of retaining his job — but now believed a rebellion against him is fading. "I now think he will survive and he deserves to survive," Grogan said.

After his reshuffle of major posts on Friday, Brown awarded junior government jobs on Monday — promoting a number of potential critics in a bid to dampen dissent.

If rebels back down, Brown is likely to remain in office at least for another year. Olympics minister Tessa Jowell said Brown plans to call an election in May 2010 — almost the last possible moment — hoping that an upturn in the economy will revive his political fortunes.