Brown's authority dealt severe blow as Blears quits

Gordon Brown's authority as Prime Minister was dealt a severe blow today, as Communities Secretary Hazel Blears quit the Cabinet on the eve of crucial European and local elections.

Conservative leader David Cameron said the fourth ministerial resignation in two days showed the Prime Minister had lost command of a Government which was "collapsing before our eyes", while Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told MPs: "Labour is finished."

But Mr Brown rejected opposition calls for an immediate General Election, insisting he was focusing on cleaning up the parliamentary expenses system and helping Britain through the recession.

However, he ducked Mr Cameron's challenge to say whether Alistair Darling - tipped for the chop in the reshuffle expected within the next few days - would still be in the Treasury next week.

In a letter to Mr Brown confirming her resignation, Ms Blears said she was proud of her service to the Government over the past eight years and would "work tirelessly to see Labour elected at the next General Election".

But she pointedly offered none of the usual expressions of support for the Prime Minister or his policies.

In response, Mr Brown praised the Salford MP's achievements as a minister and said he hoped she would return to Government in the future.

Downing Street said Ms Blears, who told the PM she was going in a face-to-face meeting today, would be replaced as Communities Secretary "very shortly".



Meanwhile, rumours swept Westminster of an email campaign by rebel Labour MPs seeking backbench signatures for a letter urging Mr Brown to stand down as leader, which could be delivered on Monday if the party receives the expected drubbing in tomorrow's elections.

One former minister said there was "huge" desire in the party for a change of leadership, but MPs were waiting to see whether a "heavyweight" challenger would come forward.

Another backbencher suggested there could be an impromptu vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister when the Parliamentary Labour Party meets on Monday.

And senior backbencher Barry Sheerman warned Mr Brown was "in trouble" if he did not react swiftly to widespread disillusionment in the PLP.

The Guardian website said some Labour rebels believe they can persuade up to 80 MPs to sign a demand for his resignation. Earlier reports said thy had drawn up a timetable for his removal by the first week of July. But several key allies this afternoon stepped forward with unequivocal support for the Prime Minister, which some commentators said should give him a little breathing space.

The BBC reported that it had seen a copy of the letter but its political correspondent Iain Watson said he understood some backbenchers would be happy to sign any anti-Brown letter, but others who have criticised the PM would refuse to sign because they believed bringing forward a general election would be "catastrophic".



Ms Blears' resignation came less than two hours before Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons and followed announcements yesterday from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, children's minister Beverley Hughes and Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson that they would leave Government at the reshuffle.

In a statement, Ms Blears said she wanted to return to grassroots activism, adding: "I never sought high office for the sake of it, or for what I can gain, but for what I can achieve for the people I represent and serve."

In a comment seen by some as an indication she believes the Brown administration has lost touch with voters, she said she wanted to "help the Labour Party to reconnect with the British people".

A former party chairman and one of the most prominent Cabinet Blairites, Ms Blears had come under increasing pressure over her expenses after Mr Brown said it was "totally unacceptable" for her to avoid paying capital gains tax on the sale of a property for which she had claimed the parliamentary second homes allowance.

Some saw the PM's comment - which came after she repaid more than £13,000 to HM Revenue and Customs - as revenge for her earlier mockery of his appearance on YouTube.

In a stormy PMQs, Mr Cameron told Mr Brown the decision of the minister responsible for local government to step down the day before council elections was "a direct challenge to his authority".

Britain now had "a dysfunctional Cabinet, a dysfunctional Government, led by a Prime Minister who can't give a lead" and needed an immediate General Election, the Tory leader said.

And Mr Clegg told MPs: "We can now see the Government is in total meltdown. The Prime Minister is thrashing around, fighting for his own political survival.

"The country doesn't have a Government, it has a void. Labour is finished. The only choice now is between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats."

The Prime Minister sought to brush off the attacks, paying tribute to both Ms Blears and Ms Smith and accusing the Tory leader of ducking policy issues.

"At a time like this the House should come together to acknowledge contributions that have been made in the public interest," he said.

"We have got two jobs of work to do. One is to clean up the expenses system, where I think everyone in this House except (Mr Cameron) agrees that we have got to take action now to clean up the system. The other is the recession."

Speaking after PMQs, Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said Mr Brown and the whole Government faced "a challenge ... to keep our nerve at a time when we have got to go through a genuine crisis in our politics".

Cabinet ministers Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn also took to the airwaves to insist Mr Brown should remain as Prime Minister.

And Jim Sheridan, chairman of Westminster's group of Scottish Labour MPs, called for "cool heads", telling the BBC: "This party has to stick together, we need discipline, and I think Gordon is the man to instil that discipline in people."

But the normally loyal Mr Sheerman warned: "I think that, if the Prime Minister doesn't realise that, across the party, there is a disillusionment with the way the parliamentary party has been consulted, treated and valued, he is heading for trouble.

"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 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."

Former home secretary John Reid tonight issued a statement through his office insisting that he would not be returning to government.

However his office refused to comment on a report that Mr Reid had turned down an offer of his old job at a meeting last night with Mr Brown.

The brief statement said only: "John Reid will not be returning to government. Any reports to the contrary are untrue."

Meanwhile Health Secretary Alan Johnson, who is seen as Mr Brown's most likely successor, said the Prime Minister was still the best man for the job.

"He is doing the job and there is absolutely no-one who could do the job better," he told Sky News.

Asked if he could personally do a better job than Mr Brown, Mr Johnson replied: "No".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor