Brownhog day: Return of the 'Get rid of Gordon gang'

Here we go again – as the Labour rout at Norwich North brings out the 'Get Rid of Gordon' gang, what are their chances this time? Jane Merrick reports
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Indy Politics

As predictably as soggy sandwiches at a British summer picnic, Labour's usual suspects emerged yesterday to call on Gordon Brown to consider his position as leader.

No sooner had the ballot boxes in Norwich North been packed away, than the Get Rid of Gordon group shuffled forward hoping to trigger a fresh leadership crisis.

Charles Clarke led the phalanx of critics who warned that the Prime Minister will face a challenge in the autumn – after MPs' 82-day summer holiday, naturally.

But while Mr Brown's leadership remains under threat, the malcontents were beginning to look like boys and girls crying wolf in what was becoming another "Brownhog Day".

During what Mr Brown admitted last week had been a "difficult year", he has been hit by a series of crises with ever-increasing frequency and predictability.

Even after the spate of resignations led by James Purnell, following the local and Euro elections in June, there was no mass revolt across the Labour Party.

But after nearly two months of relative quiet, Labour's defeat in Norwich to Conservative Chloe Smith – with a 7,348 majority – ignited a fresh round of sniping: Mr Brown's apparent reluctance to carry any of the blame for Labour's failure in the by-election crystallised much of the anger.

The Prime Minister blamed the result in Norwich on everything except his own unpopularity and even suggested every party had done badly. In the wake of Friday's result, he said: "The voters were clearly torn between their anger and dismay at what has been happening over MPs' expenses, something that we are trying to clean up, and at the same time the support for the former MP, the Labour MP Ian Gibson, who was very popular."

Mr Clarke pointed the finger at Mr Brown for his handling of the ousting of Mr Gibson over his expenses claim. Mr Brown should carry the blame for the "incompetent and unjust style" that had "deeply damaged democratic politics", he said.

The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, Mr Brown's closest political ally, risked deepening anger among rebels by suggesting Mr Purnell had quit the Cabinet because of a "mid-life crisis".

But by last night, the majority of MPs were preparing for their long summer holiday, and even critics of Mr Brown remained split over whether to mount another coup attempt – the fourth of his premiership – in the autumn.

Barry Sheerman, who last month called for a secret leadership ballot before pulling back after Mr Brown's performance at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, put him on notice that he had until the end of the summer to improve his game.

The chairman of the education select committee told Radio 4's Today programme: "In any other human organisation I know, if the chief executive doesn't get it and doesn't deliver, then he has to consider his position. Now I'm saying he's got the summer to recognise this isn't about members' expenses, it's about something much more fundamental."

The Labour MP for Vauxhall, Kate Hoey, a serial rebel against Mr Brown, said she did not think there would be a fresh leadership challenge. But she told the BBC: "The Prime Minister, I hope, will be looking at how he's looking to lead the party. A lot of party members feel that they are not listened to."

Writing in The Independent,Mr Clarke, a former home secretary, did not shrink from his opposition to Mr Brown: "The main reason for the Norwich result was that voters there were quite clear that it was for them, not the Labour leadership, to decide whether or not Ian Gibson remained their MP."

Miss Smith secured a swing of 16.4 per cent and more than twice as many votes as her Labour rival Chris Ostrowski, who held second place ahead of the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

Tony Lloyd, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, accepted that morale was low among MPs, but added: "There will be no leadership challenge to Gordon Brown."

With Labour MPs divided over what to do with their leader, the more serious threat to the Prime Minister is the collapse in support for the Government among working-class voters.

New figures showed millions of low earners in the C1 and C2 social grades, who were key to the election victories of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, are deserting Mr Brown.

Research by the independent think tank the Resolution Foundation, which represents low earners, shows support for Labour has halved since 1997.

Analysis of voting patterns at the last three polls and voting intentions today suggests this powerful group, representing around eight million people, will hand power to David Cameron next year, regardless of the battle over spending cuts.

The research shows that C1s and C2s – lower-middle and skilled working class, typically floating voters affected by the smallest changes in economic weather – are expected to hand Mr Cameron the first Tory win in 18 years.

In 1997, 42 per cent of C1s and C2s voted Labour, compared with 44 per cent of all voters. In 2001, 43 per cent backed Labour compared with 42 per cent of all. In 2005, 35 per cent of this group voted Labour, compared with 36 overall. Today just 23 per cent of C1s and C2s intend to vote Labour compared to 27 per cent overall, the Resolution Foundation figures show.

The change appears to go beyond discontent with Mr Brown – this group is also the most affected by the recession. The research suggests it has been hit by the squeeze on borrowing, the property slump and by unemployment. Its members are also denied state safety nets because they are ineligible for housing benefit and jobseeker's allowance or income support.

The hokey-cokey ex-minister

Charles Clarke: Changed his mind on Brown more times than he's had hot dinners. Gave PM a chance late last year, but since the failed coup he's had a go at every opportunity

Loyal backbencher gone bad

Barry Sheerman: Had a hand in June's attempted coup by demanding a secret ballot. Won over by Brown at PLP meeting the next week. Now says Brown has "until end of summer"

Embittered old leftie

John McDonnell: Stood against Brown in 2007, always one of the first to hit the airwaves on leadership wobbles. Accused PM yesterday of a "terrible miscalculation" over Norwich North

Serial rebel

Kate Hoey: Never a fan of Brown – one of the few not to sign his leadership papers. Yesterday complained on BBC that Labour was failing to put across the right message to voters

Foul-mouthed petrolhead

Jeremy Clarkson: In February, the Top Gear frontman called Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot". He apologised but clearly didn't mean it, as recently he referred to the PM as a "cunt"