Fateful encounter that could seal Brown's fate

To lose one cabinet minister is bad luck. To lose two – within 24 hours – is the sort of carelessness that could finish off Gordon Brown's leadership.

While Jacqui Smith was making her last Commons appearance as Home Secretary on Tuesday afternoon, one of her closest Cabinet allies, Hazel Blears, was being ushered into the Prime Minister's study for a fateful encounter.

After fielding parliamentary questions for an hour, the Communities Secretary made the short journey to Downing Street for a meeting she had requested with Mr Brown.

She told him plainly she thoroughly objected to his saying on television that her expenses claims had been "totally unacceptable" when he had been so quick to defend Geoff Hoon and James Purnell, the other ministers facing similar allegations. Though there were no raised voices, Mr Brown's reaction left her with a powerful suspicion that she was only days away from being sacked. That evening, she decided she would follow Ms Smith's example and jump first.

At 9.45 yesterday she was back in Downing Street, resignation letter in hand. Unlike Ms Smith she revealed the news herself, knowing that two hours later Mr Brown would have to face Prime Minister's Questions.

Appropriately she was wearing a brooch bearing the words "rocking the boat". It was a slogan that barely begins to describe the turmoil her provocatively timed resignation on the eve of today's council and European elections had on morale.

Her disillusionment with Mr Brown was hammered home in a resignation letter warning that Labour had lost touch with the electors – and avoided any praise for his leadership. She said: "I want to help you and the Labour Party to reconnect with the... people, to remind them that our values are their values, that their hopes and dreams are ours too, and to expose the policies of the Conservatives."

Already reeling from the news on Tuesday that three ministers including Ms Smith would resign, No 10 had been desperate for a quiet day. With its hopes dashed by Ms Blears and signs growing that her departure would trigger a wider rebellion, Mr Brown's allies hit back by pouring scorn on the outgoing Communities Secretary.

They accused her of trying – and failing – to persuade Ms Smith, a fellow Blairite, to resign jointly in an effort to maximise the damage to the PM. They also claimed that she had been forced to step down by fresh revelations over her expenses claims – reportedly uncovered by the Cabinet Office – which would have made it impossible for her to survive.

Two weeks after she voluntarily paid £13,000 to the Commons Fees Office to cover capital gains tax on the sale of her London "second home", it emerged that the money in fact covered two properties in the capital.

A spokesman for Ms Blears claimed that she did not even know that this new disclosure was about to hit her until after she had resigned, and that she had made the situation clear in a statement on her website.

However, it is understood the website was only updated three days after she announced the return of the cash, complete with a flourish of a cheque to the television cameras.

A friend of Ms Blears also questioned why the details emerged yesterday, claiming she appeared to be the victim of a "classic smear operation".

As the reverberations from her resignation hit Westminster, she watched PMQs on a television in her office, then set off on a train back to her Salford constituency surrounded by minders to stop journalists getting to her.

Facing a packed and excitable Commons brought out Gordon Brown's fighting spirit. For a time it seemed that he had launched an effective fightback, which brought cabinet ministers out in front of the cameras defending him. Crucially, they included the Health Secretary Alan Johnson, the man most likely to succeed Mr Brown if he is toppled in the next few days. Peter Mandelson, another key figure, was also emphatic in his support.

But soon more rumours were swirling. Hazel Blears's closest political friend, Europe minister Caroline Flint, was forced to deny that she was about to join the female exodus. And soon it became clear that there is worse in store for Mr Brown. His enemies will stay underground today while voters go to the polls, but will come into the open when the polling stations close at 10pm. Yesterday they signalled their seriousness by leaking in time for the early evening news bulletins the text of a round-robin email that they hope will force the PM to resign. The plotters are planning to go public with the letter if they can muster 50 signatures, but they believe they can attract as many as 80 names from across the party.

There have been conspiracies against other prime ministers, but few that appeared as determined as this. All the signs are that it involves MPs from all wings of the party. The uprising is being taken so seriously that Mr Brown is expected to contact dozens of backbenchers personally over the next 48 hours to appeal for their support.

Labour whips were downplaying the email yesterday, saying it was the work of a hardcore of 12 to 15 malcontents and warning that it would be almost impossible to force Mr Brown out against his will. But one influential Government figure admitted that the situation was so fluid that it was impossible to guarantee Mr Brown's survival. Asked whether the situation was "containable", he replied unconvincingly after a pause: "I think it is."

One minister admitted he was in despair. He said: "People in the country and people in the party want Gordon Brown to go. He is a complete liability on the doorstep – they hate him. If he doesn't go, we face annihilation."

Outwardly loyal, privately mutinous, he reflected the gloom of many Labour MPs yesterday. If people like him decide to break cover, Mr Brown's fate could be sealed within days.

Seizing power: Why the rules favour the PM

One comfort for Gordon Brown is that the Labour Party rule book is there to protect him: it is almost impossible for members to remove their leader when the leader is Prime Minister.

* Any contender needs the signatures of at least 70 Labour MPs out of 350.

* But even then, "a leadership election when in government can only be held if requested by a majority of party conference on a card vote".

* So strictly speaking, iLabour cannot even make a decision to hold a contest, if Brown does not step down, until the annual conference on 27 September.

* Gordon Brown is a stubborn man for whom the tenancy of No 10 is the fulfilment of a life's ambition. He is not going to give up the job willingly.

* The restrictive rules are to stop maverick MPs having a pop at the Prime Minister. But when there is a serious revolt, the rules do not matter, because political realities take over.

Life and Style
A nearly completed RoboThespian robot inside the Engineered Arts workshop is tested in Penryn, England. The Cornish company, operating from an industrial unit near Falmouth, is the world's only maker of commercially available life sized humanoid robots
techSuper-intelligent robots could decide destroying the human race is the kindest thing to do
News
The current recommendation from Britain's Chief Medical Officer, is that people refrain from drinking on at least two days a week
food + drinkTheory is that hangovers are caused by methanol poisoning
Life and Style
techConcept would see planes coated in layer of micro-sensors and able to sense wear and tear
News
Patrick Stewart in the classiest ice bucket to date
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
newsComedian Lee Hurst started trend with first tweet using the hashtag
News
scienceExcitement from alien hunters at 'evidence' of extraterrestrial life
News
newsRyan Crighton goes in search of the capo dei capi
Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Extras
indybest

Arts and Entertainment
Actors front row from left, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Bradley Cooper, Peter Nyongío Jr., and, second row, from left, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyongío and Angelina Jolie as they pose for a
film
Sport
sport
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Software Developer (Java /C# Programmer)- London

£30000 - £45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global investment management fi...

Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CCNP, Cisco, London)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(CCIE, CC...

Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, Cisco, CISSP)

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Analyst - (CCIE, C...

Senior Network Engineer-(Design, Implementation, CCIE)

£60000 - £80000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Senior Network Engineer-(Design, ...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition