Is this the end for Gordon Brown ?
Gordon Brown tonight faces a lightning coup after the shock resignation of Hazel Blears.
The embattled Prime Minister could be forced to quit in days say senior backbenchers who aim to amass 75 MPs' names on a letter calling on him to go. A possible replacement could be Health Secretary Alan Johnson.
Barry Sheerman, who chairs the Commons children's committee, said that “across the party, there is a disillusionment with the way the parliamentary party has been consulted, treated and valued”.
The plot gathered pace after Communities Secretary Ms Blears quit the Cabinet. Ms Blears dropped her bombshell 90 minutes before Prime Minister's Questions and the day before the local and European elections. As if to underline her message, the minister, under fire over her expenses claims, wore a brooch bearing the words “Rocking the Boat”.
Mr Sheerman said Mr Brown was “heading for trouble”, adding: “If you lose your base of support, and if even the Cabinet starts to feel unhappy with the leadership of the Prime Minister, then that is one indication of unhappiness and it destabilises a regime. If you do that with a broader group of colleagues in the parliamentary party, right across the political spectrum, then you are really in trouble and you've got to do something fast before it gets unstoppable.”
Mr Sheerman is the most heavyweight figure to call on Mr Brown to go. Cabinet ministers are said to be ready to call for his resignation if he ignores the revolt.
One MP said: “It's 50/50 whether he lasts beyond Monday. If he went on Monday night, there could be a new leader by Tuesday and probably a general election in October or November.” Crisis point for Mr Brown is on Sunday night when the European election results are announced.
Labour's rulebook allows the Cabinet to install an interim leader within a day. A formal confirmation process would then be held, open to any candidate mustering 12.5 per cent of MPs as supporters.
But in a blunt warning to the plotters, Lord Mandelson said changing leader would probably trigger an early general election, with disastrous consequences for Labour. In fierce Commons clashes, David Cameron called Ms Blears's resignation “a direct challenge” to the PM's authority — and few ministers disagreed. “The Government is collapsing before our eyes,” said Mr Cameron. No 10 was taken completely by surprise by Ms Blears, who told the Prime Minister in a face-to-face meeting in his study at 9.45. She issued her own statement 45 minutes later.
“Today I have told the Prime Minister that I am resigning from the Government,” she said. Hinting she will speak out in future against Mr Brown's policies and direction, she added: “I am returning to the grassroots . . . to the cut and thrust of political debate.”
It swiftly emerged that Ms Blears was yesterday challenged by Cabinet Office officials, who are trawling through ministerial expense claims, of new concerns about her failure to pay capital gains tax.
Sources hinted this lay behind her sudden resignation and, in later comments, Mr Brown, Lord Mandelson and Liam Byrne all implied that she had decided to go because of the stress of having her claims under scrutiny.
Ms Blears was accused of repeatedly “flipping” her second home addresses to maximise her Commons expenses claims and she then paid £13,000 in capital gains tax.
There was deeping hostility between Ms Blears' friends and No 0 after the briefings she quit over her tax affairs.
A spokesman for Ms Blears said the facts about both her flats and the tax bill had been published on her website since 15 May. “This is not new information,” he said, insisting it had nothing to do with her resignation. A friend of the minister said “a classic smear operation” had been launched against her. In an ominous sign for Mr Brown, he was haemorrhaging support from previously loyal Labour MPs. “The boil is about to be lanced,” said one senior backbencher. Another MP who has stuck by Mr Brown throughout his troubled premiership gave up backing him today. “It's inconceivable that anyone could do worse,” he said. “If a comparison is needed, it is Iain Duncan Smith.” Mr Duncan Smith was forced out by Tory MPs and replaced by Michael Howard as leader before the 2005 election.
In further blows to the Prime Minister, the Standard has learned that Chancellor Alistair Darling is resisting a move to the Home Office. Friends say he has “absolutely no intention” of going to the department vacated by Jacqui Smith.
The dramatic moves, coming after Ms Smith, Tom Watson and Beverley Hughes all announced they were quitting, fuelled the impression that Mr Brown's authority was ebbing fast.
The departure of Ms Blears left Mr Brown speeding up the planned reshuffle. Senior sources said he was this afternoon close to completing what would be a “very significant change in government”, with many senior ministers changing jobs.
But any hope of a smooth relaunch of the Government's fortunes were in tatters after the string of early resignations. Tom Brown, one of the Prime Minister's oldest friends, told Sky News that he would dig in and defy his critics. “I think he is hurting. He doesn't want to be remembered for being forced out of office. I think he will be bunkering down,” he said.
Mr Brown attacked Labour MPs, claiming they were “panic merchants who are not members of the Labour party but members of a self-survival club”. Mr Cameron pointed out that Ms Blears was the minister in charge of local government — making her resignation on the eve of council elections all the more extraordinary.
Lord Mandelson insisted that Ms Blears' departure was solely connected with her expenses. “I don't think it's anything to do with the Prime Minister. We are seeing a huge blowback against ministers from this expenses scandal. Unfortunately, she's paid the price.”
Lord Mandelson said “the Government and the party has to keep its nerve” and praised Mr Brown's performance against the Tory leader in the Commons.
“The Prime Minister was on top of his game and David Cameron wasn't able to land a glove. That's because David Cameron has no substance,” he said.
Loyalists begged the PM to assert his authority or face a full-scale leadership crisis. Labour MP John Mann said he hoped Mr Brown would lead the party to the election. “I hope he will but to do so he has got to go for it,” he said.