More ministers may resign in protest at Gordon Brown's leadership as his critics pile pressure on the embattled Prime Minister.
After David Cairns, the Scotland Office minister, became the first member of the Government to quit over Mr Brown's performance, another told The Independent: "There are a number of ministers who have cautiously looked at the situation and say they are very uncomfortable with it. It's been in my mind whether I should step down, and if so, when."
Some ministers are privately accusing Mr Brown of using the financial crisis to to "buy" himself a few more months in his job. One described the policy presentation as "awful" and another said it was the most uncomfortable cabinet session he had ever attended.
Mr Cairns's decision overshadowed an attempt by Mr Brown to shift the spotlight on to policy after the Cabinet approved a "vision statement" to be launched at Labour's annual conference next week. It includes plans to give child care greater priority in order to boost social mobility and reduce crime and antisocial behaviour and a pledge to reform the "funding and provision" of care for the elderly.
There are growing fears that the Manchester conference will now be dominated by Mr Brown's survival prospects. Brown allies are bracing themselves for further resignations by ministers. One aide said the Prime Minister was in his "death throes" and they were waiting "until the time is right".
The second minister, speaking anonymously, said the dozen Labour MPs who want Mr Brown to face a leadership contest were not isolated. He said: "What we have seen so far is the tip of the iceberg. Brown's people are making out it is a small group of disgruntled former ministers who are making trouble. They are actually party loyalists who believe we can't go on with Gordon Brown. There are a lot more people who agree but are keeping their counsel just for the moment."
The junior minister added that it was "a matter of when, rather than if" there was a move to force Mr Brown out. "We can't sleepwalk into 2010," he said. "If we wait until then we will be slaughtered. Changing leader couldn't make things worse – people just aren't listening to him. There's a great deal of frustration that when Gordon reaches one milestone for his survival, then another one appears."
Mr Cairns voiced similar criticisms about the rebels' treatment in a resignation letter sent after Des Browne, the Defence Secretary and Secretary of State for Scotland, failed to talk him out of quitting. He said: "Our response as a government has been to suggest that these were the actions of a tiny number of disaffected people who have taken leave of their senses, are part of some larger plot and are entirely unrepresentative of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Although it had not been my intention to resign, I have reluctantly concluded that it is the only honourable course of action left open." He insisted he was "not part of a plot".
Mr Brown replied: "I believe it is vital that we as a Government, and as a country, stand together in the face of these difficult times and concentrate all our efforts on helping the British people to come through them." He told Mr Cairns: "I do not agree with you that this is the time at which the Labour Party should be focused on internal debates."
At yesterday's cabinet session, some ministers argued that Labour would be foolish to oust someone with Mr Brown's experience during a global financial crisis. One said: "We have at the helm the person who knows more about the economic realities than pretty much any other leader."
The threat of a "vote of no confidence" in Mr Brown was lifted when Labour's national executive committee rejected calls for nomination forms for a leadership election to be issued to MPs.
Priest who became a Labour minister
David Cairns is an unlikely rebel. A mild-mannered Labour loyalist, he is also a former Catholic priest, the first to become an MP after the repeal of a law prohibiting ordained clergy from sitting in the Commons. The change in law was promoted by his friend Siobhain McDonagh, sacked as a junior whip last week after calling for a leadership contest. The 42-year-old Inverclyde MP was made Minister of State in the Scotland Office last year. He defended Gordon Brown's leadership after the disastrous Glasgow East by-election in July. Then, Mr Cairns said: "I said before we began that I did not think the fate of prime ministers hinges on one by-election and that whatever the outcome tonight, Gordon Brown would continue to lead the Labour Party into the next election." Those who spoke to him yesterday said he was in a state of "wretched anguish" as he agonised over whether to resign. But in the end he did what was "in his heart". He denied being part of any plot.
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