Gordon Brown was struggling to regain his authority last night as a planned cabinet reshuffle designed to launch a political fightback was wrecked by a spate of Labour resignations.
On a day of chaos in government circles, Jacqui Smith's aides confirmed she would stand down as Home Secretary at the reshuffle, expected soon after local and European elections tomorrow in which Labour fears a meltdown.
Last night, Labour backbenchers told The Independent that the "complete disarray" in the Government had increased the prospects of an attempt to oust Mr Brown after this week's elections.
Ms Smith told the Prime Minister at Easter she wanted to quit to protect her family, soon after becoming the first victim of the leaking of the details of MPs' expenses claims. She came under fire for listing her sister's London property as her main home and claiming "second homes" allowances on her family home in her Redditch constituency, including a claim for two adult films submitted by her husband.
Ms Smith is not the only MP heading for the departure lounge. Tom Watson, a Cabinet Office minister and member of the Brown inner circle, surprised Labour MPs by announcing he would leave the Government.
Beverley Hughes, the Children's minister, and Patricia Hewitt, the former health secretary, said they would quit Parliament at the general election. So did David Chaytor, a Labour backbencher who claimed £13,000 in expenses for a mortgage he had paid off. More than 40 Labour MPs have now disclosed they will stand down, reflecting the widespread resignation in the party that it is heading for an inevitable defeat.
Four Labour MPs caught up in the expenses scandal have been formally barred from standing for the party at the next general election by an internal panel. Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich North, became the first victim of the scandals after being banned from being a Labour candidate. Three of the four had already announced they would stand down and so have not been expelled from the party by Labour's "star chamber" or had the whip removed.
The Home Secretary's pre-emptive strike led to opposition claims that Mr Brown had a "lame duck" Cabinet. The expenses scandal has put a big question mark over Alistair Darling's hopes of remaining as Chancellor, after he repaid almost £700 of allowances wrongly claimed for his London flat. Two other cabinet ministers – Geoff Hoon and Hazel Blears – have repaid money after revelations about their expenses.
There is deep frustration among Brown allies that yesterday's shambles may further harm Labour's prospects in tomorrow's elections. If the results turn into a Labour rout, backbenchers will try to enlist cabinet ministers for a campaign to force Mr Brown to stand down before the general election.
Last night, senior Labour figures warned that the prospect of a move against Mr Brown was becoming more likely every day. "There is a growing feeling that we have nothing to lose," said one former cabinet minister. "It now feels more likely than last year," when a campaign to oust the Prime Minister fizzled out.
Even if they fail to win cabinet-level support, MPs predict an uncoordinated outbreak of backbench "disorder" and "chaos" that could bring Mr Brown down. He is receiving conflicting advice ahead of a reshuffle that could prove critical to efforts to hold on to his post.
His critics warned he would provoke a civil war if he promotes his long-time ally Ed Balls to Chancellor. "If he wants to trigger a leadership crisis, that is the way to do it," one said. Brownites accused Blairites of talking up the prospects of Mr Balls becoming Chancellor in the hope of heading off the move. Some close advisers are urging Mr Brown to use the reshuffle to "clear out" some big names embroiled in the expenses controversy. "The public want blood," one minister said. But others said he could not allow the row to dictate the reshuffle. Yesterday, Mr Brown said he would make the changes that are "right for the country".
Some MPs urged Mr Brown to speed up the reshuffle. But he is due to attend the D-Day memorial events in Normandy at the weekend, so it is most likely to be take place next Monday.
The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru added to the pressure on Mr Brown by tabling a Commons motion for debate next week calling for an immediate general election.
William Hague, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said the Government seemed to be in a state of collapse. "They have lost the authority and unity and confidence to actually govern the country," he said. But David Cameron admitted that the expenses scandal was harming the Tories too.
A ComRes poll today on voting intentions for the European elections puts the Tories on 24 per cent, Labour on 22 per cent, Ukip 17 per cent, the Greens 15 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 14 per cent. The survey, commissioned by the Greens, suggests the Tories would lose eight seats in the European Parliament, Labour two, the Liberal Democrats four and Ukip one, while the Greens would gain nine seats.
ON THE UP?
The Climate Change Secretary has nothing to fear from the reshuffle. He is a trusted friend of Gordon Brown, has relatively few enemies and has emerged squeaky clean from the expenses row. There is an outside chance that he could be the next Chancellor.
As Gordon Brown's most likely successor, the Health Secretary has to tread carefully. If he accepts a new job, it could be taken as a sign he has acknowledged the PM is there for the medium term. He can argue that he needs to stay to deal with swine flu.
Balls has always wanted to be Chancellor. Brown would like to promote him, setting him up to be the next Labour PM. But he has many enemies. What happens here will show how strong Brown feels his position is.
The Treasury Chief Secretary will have to move if her husband Ed Balls takes over at No 11, and even if he does not, she can expect to take charge of a government department for the first time, not least because Jacqui Smith's exit makes it necessary to promote a woman.
As minister for Europe, Flint holds one of the most important jobs outside the Cabinet. Her time for cabinet rank has probably come, especially if Hazel Blears is dropped. Her expenses claims for her London flat have been criticised, but are not bad enough to be career destroying.
The oldest and most experienced cabinet minister. He is not in line for promotion, but if there is to be a delegation of cabinet ministers to tell Brown he has to resign, it will not carry much weight without Straw.
The Work and Pensions Secretary is seen by Blairites as a possible Labour leader. A promotion would be a good way to placate them. He did not pay capital gains tax when he sold his London flat but says he would not have been liable for it even if he had not been an MP.
Labour MPs are predicting that the Business Secretary will achieve his life's ambition to be Foreign Secretary this time, but it is unlikely that Brown will want him travelling the world when there is an election imminent and his strategic political brain is needed at home.
One wild rumour is that Brown will bring in Cable as his Chancellor, paving the way for a coalition government if Labour loses the next election. But Brown will not make the offer and Cable would not accept if he did.
ON THE SLIDE?
A year ago the Foreign Secretary looked as if he was about to take over from a weakened Gordon Brown but, having fluffed his chance, he is now likely to stay where he is. If the Home Secretary and Chancellor are moved, that is quite enough change at the top end of the Cabinet.
The Chancellor is one of Gordon Brown's oldest friends who got where he is by handling difficult briefs without any bad headlines. But that talent deserted him during the expenses row. Visiting Swindon yesterday he did not sound like a man whose career is over so maybe another cabinet job awaits.
Until recently the Communities Secretary had a promising future as a leading Blairite moderniser. Then she made fun of Gordon Brown's YouTube appearance and, worse still, was exposed for having avoided capital gains tax when she sold her home. Paying back the money is not likely to save her.