Hoon and Hewitt challenge Brown's leadership

Two former Cabinet ministers have today launched a last-minute insurrection that could see Gordon Brown replaced as Labour’s leader.

In a dramatic move that could see Labour plunged into a leadership contest just months before a general election, Geoff Hoon, the former chief whip, and Patricia Hewitt, the former Health Secretary, have called for a secret ballot on Mr Brown’s leadership. They have written to all Labour MPs, asking that the leadership question be resolved “once and for all”.

Some Labour backbenchers had already raised the question of Mr Brown’s leadership, suggesting that the party would perform better at the next election under new leadership. But the attack by Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt came as a surprise to MPs today.

News of the move came during Prime Ministers’ Questions, where it quickly undermined Mr Brown’s good performance against David Cameron. Attention will now turn to a crucial meeting of all Labour MPs next Monday, which looks set to be the party’s last chance to replace Mr Brown ahead of the election, which must be held by June.

In Westminster this afternoon, MPs were already suggesting that they would be supporting the move for a secret ballot on Mr Brown’s position, with many already preparing letter informing the party whips of their decision.

An email was sent by Mr Hoon to all Labour MPs during PMQs. The letter stated: “Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot.”

The pair warned: “There is a risk otherwise that the persistent background briefing and grumbling could continue up to and possibly through the election campaign, affecting our ability to concentrate all of our energies on getting our real message across.

“In what will inevitably be a difficult and demanding election campaign, we must have a determined and united parliamentary party.”

Both Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt said that they had not discussed their call for a “back him or sack him” ballot over Mr Brown’s leadership with any Cabinet ministers. They added that if Mr Brown came through the ballot intact, “constant speculation” about his position would be quelled and the party could unite behind him.

Frank Field, a former Labour minister who led the rebellion against Mr Brown over the 10p tax issue, backed the ballot. “I support a secret ballot among all backbench MPs on the leadership question,” he said. Charles Clarke, the former Home Secretary who has been a constant critic of Mr Brown, also confirmed that he had received the letter and that he was backing their move.

John McFall, a Labour MP who is an ally of Mr Brown, said that the attempt to bring about a secret ballot on the leadership was “a death wish” brought about by two MPs that were stepping down anyway at the next election. Sources at No.10 said that Mr Brown was “getting on with the job”.

Any leadership election would be difficult to bring about quickly, with many Labour MPs wary about having two uncontested leadership contests in a row. The last contested election was in 1994 and took two months to complete before Tony Blair finally replaced John Smith, who died.

Eric Pickles, the Conservative Party chairman said that Labour MPs were increasingly turning on Mr Brown. “It’s irresponsible to have such a dysfunctional, faction-ridden Labour Party running the country,” he said. “Ministers are more concerned about saving their own political skin than actually getting Britain out of the monumental mess we are in. We cannot go on like this. The only responsible thing the Government can do is call a general election.”

Many of the Cabinet’s most powerful figures appeared during the course of the afternoon to back Mr Brown. Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, said that Mr Brown was “the best man to lead the Labour Party”. He added: “I respect Patricia and Geoff a great deal but I do not support their proposal.” Ed Miliband, the climate change Secretary who many see as a future leader of the party, said that the attempted putsch had angered many MPs as it came at a time when Labour’s fortunes had been rallying.

“There isn’t support for what Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have done and the vast majority of Labour MPs want to get on with the business of both government and fighting the next general election,” he said. He added that he believed his brother, David Miliband, also backed Mr Brown. However, by 7pm tonight, the Foreign Secretary still had not appeared to support the Prime Minister.

Alistair Darling, who is said to have clashed with the Prime Minister over plans to reduce the budget deficit, issued a statement supporting Mr Brown. “As far as I’m concerned we should be concentrating on the business of government and getting through the recession,” he said. “The PM and I met this afternoon and we discussed how we take forward economic policies to secure the recovery. I won’t be deflected from that.”

Later, Mr Miliband issued a cautious statement in which he said he “supported the re-election campaign for a Labour Government”.