LONDON // Prime Minister Gordon Brown, facing the biggest challenge of his leadership, was clinging desperately to power last night following a flood of ministerial resignations and disastrous results in local elections. Although he tried to steady the ship by announcing a major cabinet reshuffle, Mr Brown looked increasingly embattled as five of his senior ministers resigned within 24 hours and calls for his resignation grew louder.
The mood in the party darkened throughout the day as the results from local elections emerged and showed Labour doing as badly as opinion polls had suggested. The party no longer holds a single county council in the country. In a press conference yesterday, Mr Brown described the local elections as a "painful defeat" for which he said he "accepted responsibility" but he defied calls to step down.
"I believe in never walking away from people in difficult times. I'm not going to walk away from my duty to our country," he said. "If I didn't think I was the right person, leading the right team, then I wouldn't be standing here." He said he would never considered stepping down but admitted that the government "should have acted sooner" to address the scandal over MPs' expenses. As the prime minister spoke, more resignations rolled in. James Purnell, the works and pensions secretary; John Hutton, the defence minister; Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary; Tony McNulty, the employment minister; and Caroline Flint, the Europe minister; all resigned yesterday.
Mr Hutton, who was the fourth senior minister to resign in as many days, insisted he was leaving the government for personal, not political, reasons. Mr Purnell, however, left no question about his loyalties, calling on the prime minister to quit for the good of the party and country. Caroline Flint, who had expressed her support for Mr Brown on Thursday, made an about turn and accused the prime minister of treating her as "female window dressing" and running a "two-tier" government.
Determined to tough it out, however, Mr Brown said he would focus on tackling the economic downturn and cleaning up politics following the expenses scandal. The prime minister promised a new independent audit panel to scrutinise expenses and a "tough" mandatory code of conduct for MPs. In his reshuffle, Mr Brown promoted key allies to his inner circle, but backed down on replacing Alistair Darling, the finance minister, with Ed Balls, who had been Mr Brown's deputy when he was chancellor of the exchequer.
"Sadly, the reshuffle of the cabinet has the whiff about it of somebody rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said a Labour Party activist in London. "It is grim and stands to get even grimmer when the Euro election results are announced on Sunday and Monday. The fear is that we might even finish fourth in those polls, behind the Conservatives, Lib Dems and even UKIP [the UK Independence Party].
"Were that to happen, it is hard to see how Gordon could survive." Labour lost control of all four of its remaining county councils with Staffordshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire going to the Conservatives and Nottinghamshire passed to no overall control. With 30 of 34 councils declared, Labour had lost 250 seats and the Conservatives had gained 217. "Many good labour councillors have lost their seats through no fault of their own. Voters are worried about the economy, furious about expenses and have either decided to not vote Labour or not vote at all," Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, told the BBC.
David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, described Mr Brown's government as "falling apart" and called once again for an immediate general election - a call that is certain to go unheeded with Labour's fortunes at such a low ebb. "In a deep recession and a political crisis we need a strong united government. Instead we have a government falling apart in front of our eyes," said Mr Cameron. When challenged about the loss of many of experienced ministers, Mr Brown defended his new appointments.
Alan Johnson, who had been touted as a replacement to Mr Brown, moves to the Home Office, but Mr Darling and other key figures stay in place. Peter Hain, who had previously resigned from the position after a campaign financing scandal returned as Welsh secretary with Paul Murphy returning to the backbenches. Peter Mandelson will be given an "enhanced role" because of his "experience and contribution", Mr Brown said. Mr Mandelson becomes head of the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and first secretary of state. John Denham succeeded Hazel Blears as communities secretary - after earlier suggestions he might move to health. Andy Burnham became health secretary and Ben Bradshaw culture secretary. Yvette Cooper, the chief secretary to the treasury, replaced Mr Purnell as work and pensions secretary.
One thing in Mr Brown's favour in fighting off any challenge to his leadership from within the party is the way the movement's rules are written. They greatly favour an incumbent and it would take at least 70 MPs to rally behind a single candidate before any sort of leadership contest could be staged. The hope of those anxious to replace Mr Brown is that the cumulative pressure of resignations, criticism and poor poll results will eventually lead to him stepping down voluntarily.