Blears: PM's failure to connect with voters is 'lamentable'

Cabinet minister appears to court the sack with scathing article on Gordon Brown's faltering premiership
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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown faces an open attack from within his Cabinet today for the "lamentable" failure by his Government to communicate with voters.

Hazel Blears, the Blairite Secretary of State for Communities, says Labour's reputation has suffered a "titanic battering" in recent weeks and warns of "dire consequences" if it does not reconnect with the public.

Ms Blears also ridicules the PM's uncomfortable performance on the internet by saying: "YouTube if you want to." The comments, in an article for The Observer, were seen as a thinly veiled attempt from the right of the party to destabilise Mr Brown after one of the worst weeks of his premiership.

The timing of her article represents a challenge to the PM's authority and will trigger speculation that she could be sacked for breaking cabinet ranks. They also appeared co-ordinated with criticism last week from former cabinet ministers Charles Clarke and David Blunkett, also from the right of the party.

Ms Blears says the Government was "on the wrong side" of the argument for not granting Gurkhas the right to stay in the UK – an issue seen as symbolic of Mr Brown's disastrous week.

If Mr Brown fails to sack or reprimand her, he will almost certainly be regarded as a weakened leader. She writes: "Labour ministers have a collective responsibility for the Government's lamentable failure to get our message across. All too often we announce new strategies, five-year plans, or launch new documents, often with colossal price tags attached, which are received by the public with incredulity at best and at worst hostility."

In direct reference to Mr Brown's decision to announce policy on MPs' expenses in an awkward performance on YouTube last month, Ms Blears adds: "I'm not against new media. YouTube if you want to. But it's no substitute for knocking on doors."

Referring to the Government's Commons defeat on the Gurkhas last week, she adds: "We put ourselves on the wrong side of the British sense of fair play, and no political party can stay there for long without dire consequences. So we need to plug ourselves back into people's emotions and instincts and sound a little less ministerial and a little more human."

Two of the Cabinet's most experienced ministers indicated yesterday that they are ready to step in to try to save the Labour Party from a crushing defeat at the next election.

Alan Johnson, the Secretary of State for Health, refused to rule out running as leader, while Jack Straw, the veteran Secretary of State for Justice, said the party risked a fight for its very survival. Both ministers praised Mr Brown, but left the door open for taking over the party if confidence in his leadership collapsed.

Denis MacShane, the Blairite former Europe minister, today compares Mr Brown with Sylvester Stallone's boxing character, Rocky. In a highly unflattering pen portrait, the MP writes in the IoS: "Surely today's Prime Minister is Rocky. Battered, beaten, brooding, bruised to bits and at times unable to communicate with the public-schoolboy fluency of a Cameron or Clegg, but still there bashing on and on and on."

One of Mr Brown's closest allies said he feared the PM was "all over the place" and appeared to be finding it difficult to keep control of what David Blunkett described as "self-inflicted" wounds.

Mr Brown will attempt to rally his Cabinet and party in a speech on education this week. He will try to draw clear dividing lines between Labour and the Tories on the recession, warning that David Cameron's pledge for an "age of austerity" is the "politics of defeat".

After defeat on the Gurkhas and the climbdown on MPs' expenses, Mr Brown is facing a rebellion by Labour peers this week, on government plans to ban display of cigarettes in shops.

MPs, fearful of a long and messy leadership contest, are discussing the possibility of Mr Johnson taking over as leader if Mr Brown's leadership continues to be battered. For both Mr Johnson, 59 this month, and Mr Straw, 62, it would be the last chance to lead the party. The Secretary of State for Health has previously claimed he has no ambition to be leader. But asked in an interview with The Times yesterday whether he could be persuaded to be the party's saviour, he replied only: "I've got to go and vote."

Mr Straw issued a message to his constituents in Blackburn, where yesterday he marked 30 years as an MP. He said the party needed to show struggling families "that we remain up for the challenge under the leadership Gordon Brown is showing", but added: "It is at times like these that we all need to focus on what brought us into politics, not get dragged into narrow arguments."

The former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown claimed Labour MPs had held private talks with his party about defecting. Last night Downing Street declined to comment on Ms Blears remarks. Earlier John Prescott urged Labour MPs to "stop complaining, get campaigning". He suggested that Charles Clarke, who on Friday said he was "ashamed" to be a Labour MP, could leave the party.