Brown's downfall: The PM's worst weeks since moving into No 10

Gordon Brown has no one else to blame for an unprecedented week of blunder upon blunder. Jane Merrick and Brian Brady report
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Indy Politics

In a memorable interview shortly before becoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown claimed Britain was turning its back on celebrity culture. The interview was to promote his new book on courage, a collection of stories about true heroism against the odds.

So it was with wounding irony that a combination of Joanna Lumley, one of the country's best-loved actresses, and Gurkha soldiers, with their history of heroism against overwhelming odds, symbolised the troubles of a PM who suddenly appears to be losing his grip on the premiership.


Mr Brown's worst week actually began reasonably well, if only because he was able to get away from it all for a few days. Thus, he proudly confided, on a plane en route to Pakistan, he would hold a meeting with the Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari. Alas, when the plane touched down, the PM found himself instead sharing a press conference with Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani. Mr Brown had miscalculated, pledged more than he could deliver and ended up looking faintly foolish: perhaps he was limbering up for what was to come.

Back home, it was confirmed that he was shelving plans for a vote on his proposal to replace MPs' expenses with an attendance allowance – announced out of the blue on YouTube days before – because he had failed to win cross-party "consensus" on the issue.


Before he returned to the UK, Mr Brown made a downbeat reannouncement of strategy in Afghanistan and, to round off his attempt at globe-trotting statesmanship, found time to be lectured over "living on credit" by the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk.

Mr Brown's return home did not provide any respite. Before he had boarded the plane, he was confronted with news that the inveterate dissident Charles Clarke had warned him not to "bully" other MPs in his efforts to reform their expenses. It was the first clear indication that Labour's "big beasts" had begun seriously to question his political judgement.


In between David Cameron's preparations for PMQs, Joanna Lumley arrived at the Tory leader's offices in a "flash of blond hair", according to one party staffer. The actress and the politician held a 45-minute meeting during which Mr Cameron pledged his full support for her campaign for Gurkhas to remain in the UK.

Nick Clegg had spearheaded the political opposition to the Government on this issue, and a Commons debate led by the Lib Dem was planned for later that day. But by now, four tabloid newspapers – including The Sun and the Daily Mail – and one broadsheet newspaper were running campaigns for "Justice for the Gurkhas". To a politician with even the bluntest political instincts, this was an issue that had mass appeal and was difficult to oppose. At noon, with Ms Lumley and her Gurkha soldier campaigners seated in the public gallery, Mr Brown faced demands for a U-turn from Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and the Labour MP Martin Salter. Mr Cameron even praised the Lib Dem leader for his contribution to the battle. It was an ambush worthy of a Gurkha victory.

Mr Brown, looking isolated, ended PMQs in a state of discombobulation – he got up to leave the Dispatch Box just as the Speaker announced a statement from the Prime Minister on Afghanistan, forcing a literal U-turn, to jeers from the Tory benches.

The Government was defeated 267 to 241 on the Gurkha vote. It was only symbolic, but the symbolism was enough to fuel the sense of crisis. Some 27 Labour MPs rebelled, but many more abstained. One cabinet minister said: "No one knows what happened. Some people just didn't turn up." Another said: "I don't even know whether it was whipped. Many of us didn't know what was going on." Minutes later, Ms Lumley appeared outside the Commons flanked by Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg, who told friends he was "very relaxed" about the Tory leader joining in the victory celebration. Ms Lumley then brandished her Gurkha kukri, and the symbolism could not have been clearer.

The Chief Whip, Nick Brown, is a long-term ally of the Prime Minister. But he was accused of everything from incompetence to wilful negligence as the vote slipped beyond the Government. A whip stationed at the entrance to the "Aye" lobby, to deter colleagues from rebelling, was laughed at by several of the 27 insubordinates.

The catastrophe also wrought havoc within the Government, with allies of the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, having to fight off claims that she was to blame because she failed to recognise the scale of the revolt.


Mr Brown's eagerness to cobble together an agreement on changes to the allowances afforded to MPs is entirely related to the fact that, within the next few weeks, full details of how much they have received – and for what purpose – will be laid bare for all to see. After that, it will be impossible to ignore the rising demands for change.

However, typically for a PM who – as David Blunkett later observed – appears to have lost his political antennae, Mr Brown had to perform a dramatic volte-face to prevent his second Commons defeat in two days. His plans to replace MPs' second-home payments with an attendance allowance bit the dust as the parliamentary logic became clear. Mr Brown only avoided defeat by withdrawing the plans completely and accepting that the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Sir Christopher Kelly, should decide on the reforms. The Government did win support for proposals to stop London MPs claiming for second homes, for receipts to back up all claims and details of second jobs to be published.

With typical understatement, the Secretary of State for Business, Lord Mandelson said it had been a "bit of a week" for the Government. "It never rains but it pours," he told Today.


After the last of the meddlesome MPs had finally left Parliament for the weekend, the PM was still under attack. Several newspapers carried quotes from Mr Blunkett, the former home secretary, warning that there had been a "catastrophic" collapse in trust in the Government. He seemed to have rung round each paper in turn, although he told the Today programme he was not criticising Mr Brown directly. Mr Clarke, on the other hand, did not pull his punches. He said the series of April calamities had made him "ashamed" to be a Labour MP. His comments fuelled speculation that he could be touting himself as a "stalking horse" candidate. Asked whether this move would gain support, one backbencher said: "You can take Charles to water, or in his case, to wine, and he will certainly drink." Mr Clarke had been a presence in the tea rooms and bars of Westminster all week. After his intervention, another Labour MP said: "Never mind whether he is planning to be a stalking horse or not, he effectively has put himself out there already. The stable door is unlocked. We know he's there."

A petition calling for Mr Brown to "just go" became the most popular on the Downing Street website, with more than 25,000 signatures. On the airwaves, there was little sign of loyal cabinet ministers defending the Prime Minister. No minister was fielded for Radio 4's Any Questions? while a junior minister, Phil Hope, was the most senior member of the Government to be seen on the BBC offering support.


Alan Johnson, who has been leading the Government's response to the flu crisis, says in an interview with The Times that people should "keep calm". He is, however, talking about the disease, rather than the Labour Party. He says he admires Mr Brown, even though "I've never been the secretary of the Brown fan club". Crucially, when asked whether he could be persuaded to step in, he replies cryptically: "I've got to go and vote."

The Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, who celebrated 30 years as an MP yesterday, had a similarly veiled message. Under the guise of a letter to his Blackburn constituents, he called for a return of the vigour of the party in the 1990s. Like Mr Johnson, he praised Mr Brown but left little doubt that, if the PM can no longer take the pressure, he could be called upon to lead.

From crisis to crisis

1 to 7 October 2007 David Cameron, written off the previous weekend, delivers rallying speech to conference, without script. George Osborne proposes inheritance tax cut. By Saturday, Gordon Brown calls off an early election.

21 to 27 April 2008 After a rebellion by Labour MPs, Mr Brown performs a U-turn over plans to scrap the 10p tax band.

28 April to 4 May 2008 Labour suffers worst local election results for 40 years. Boris Johnson is elected Mayor of London.

19 to 25 May 2008 Tories overturn a 7,000-plus majority in Crewe and Nantwich after Labour's disastrous campaign.

28 July to 3 August 2008 David Miliband appears to position himself for a leadership challenge by writing an article in The Guardian calling for "renewal".

8 to 14 September 2008 Labour whip Siobhain McDonagh sacked after challenging Mr Brown by writing to Labour's general secretary, seeking a contest.