Britain's embattled prime minister remains defiant in the face of growing calls from his backbenchers to step down.
Brown's torment is far from over
LONDON // Gordon Brown is expected to issue a defiant "back me or sack me" message tomorrow when backbench MPs gather in Westminster for a meeting that could prove vital to the prime minister's chances of survival. After a tumultuous week for Mr Brown, which saw six cabinet ministers resign and Labour Party candidates take a drubbing in local elections, he remained in defiant mood yesterday as loyalists issued a series of rallying calls to MPs disaffected by his leadership. But, with a growing number of backbenchers willing to call for Mr Brown to step down, there are a number of events in the offing that could provide further challenges to the embattled prime minister. Before tomorrow's meeting of querulous MPs, the party will learn tonight how well - or, more likely, how very badly - it fared in last week's elections to the European Parliament. If Labour is squeezed into third place behind the rampant Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the pressure will be on once more. Should Labour finish fourth, behind the UK Independence Party, many Labour Party faithful do not see how he could survive the summer. Worse, perhaps, for Mr Brown is that one of his MPs has decided to resign immediately over the expenses scandal and force a by-election. Ian Gibson represents a constituency in the city of Norwich in the English shires and is just the sort of place Labour must win at a general election to retain power. "Of all the things going on at the moment, the by-election for Ian Gibson's seat probably represents Gordon's biggest challenge over the summer," a Labour Party activist in London said yesterday. "Should we lose that, a great many MPs will worry for their own seats and might see a change in leadership as the only way to revive the party's fortunes. To be honest, it would be hard to argue with them." The difficulty, though, for MPs who want to oust Mr Brown is that, even if they could agree on the person to replace him, a new prime minister would undoubtedly have to call a general election within days of taking office. And with Labour's standing in the polls so low, defeat by the Conservatives would seem inevitable. Mr Brown was yesterday hoping that his ministerial reshuffle on Friday would quell the increasingly critical noises coming from MPs and senior party figures about his leadership. "If I didn't think I was the right person to lead these challenges I would not be standing here," he said. "I have faith in doing my duty. I believe in never walking away in difficult times." He described the current political crisis, fuelled by the recession and the MPs' expenses scandal, as "a test of everyone's nerve - mine, the government's, the country's". Although two of the departing ministers have launched attacks on Mr Brown, including James Purnell's call that he step down, the prime minister has succeeded in keeping other would-be critics on side, including Alan Johnson, his apparent heir apparent, and David Miliband, the foreign secretary. Crucially, too, Peter Mandelson, probably the most influential figure in the Labour Party, remains committed to Mr Brown and has been lobbying hard on his behalf over the past few weeks to keep rebellious noises to a minimum. The bad news, however, continues to crowd in on Mr Brown. By yesterday, it was clear that Labour had lost control of four county councils in the local elections and were now not in charge of any. A BBC projection estimated that, were Thursday's voting pattern repeated at a general election, Labour would have a record low of 23 per cent. Tomorrow's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party could not have come at a worse time. Stephen Byers, a former cabinet minister under Tony Blair, said: "On Monday Labour MPs will be considering a very important question - is Gordon Brown a winner or is Gordon Brown a loser?" For the Conservatives, Caroline Spelman, the shadow local government minister, told the BBC: "What people want is a general election. They want a fresh start. They want a leader who can lead. "He may have shuffled the pack yesterday but I think some of the cards are a little on the dog-eared side." Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrats spokesman on home affairs, said that losing six cabinet ministers in three days had left the government in an "unbelievable shambles". He added: "This is an extraordinary situation when people are worried about their jobs, the economy, the state of their homes. We are getting no leadership from the government whatsoever."