Labour whip is first to openly challenge PM

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Indy Politics

Gordon Brown faced an open challenge to his position last night when Labour MPs took the first steps towards triggering a leadership contest.

Siobhain McDonagh, an arch-Blairite and Labour whip, became the first member of the Brown Government to call for a leadership election, saying that Labour needed to "clear the air" because it was doing so badly and that a "huge number" of MPs wanted a contest. She was immediately sacked from her junior ministerial post, and learnt of her dismissal from journalists.

Ms McDonagh is one of at least eight MPs who have called for Mr Brown's leadership to be debated at Labour's annual conference in Manchester starting a week today.

The MP for Mitcham and Morden, in London, told The Independent that Labour is "concerned and anxious" about the leadership issue. "Ultimately, I knew I couldn't go on not speaking about this subject ... people are talking to newspapers and journalists, but we are not having this debate. This should be a discussion for the wider country," she said.

Of her sacking, she added: "I always knew it was a possibility it might end this way." Never having voted against the Government, she said: "I'm completely terrified because I have never done anything like this before."

Ms McDonagh said she did not have an alternative leader in mind. Friends believe she would support David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, if he stood in any contest. "What I want us to do is be the best government that we can be, the best Labour Party, for the people I represent and the people as a whole, and I don't feel we're doing that," she said.

Other Labour MPs are now expected to join her call for a leadership contest – which may ensure that Mr Brown's future, rather than his attempted fightback, dominates the conference.

Brown allies insisted there was "zero chance" of rebel MPs securing enough support to trigger a contest. That would require the support of 70 MPs – 20 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) – and a majority vote in favour at the conference.

Ms McDonagh, a former aide to John Reid, the Blairite former cabinet minister, is one of only seven Labour MPs who refused to nominate Mr Brown as Tony Blair's successor last year. But Blairities denied her move was part of a concerted attempt to oust Mr Brown. One said: "This is an independent operation. It's not a coup and there is no Blairite plot."

A former cabinet minister said: "It doesn't feel like this will turn into an avalanche. But sometimes these things gain momentum and take on a life of their own."

The eight MPs calling for a debate have written to Labour headquarters asking why no nomination forms for the leader and deputy leader posts had been circulated ahead of the conference.

Labour officials dismissed their action as a "non-story", saying the letters do not call directly for a leadership contest. They insisted this had not happened because the PLP has the power to provoke a leadership election.

There is speculation that the MPs include six former ministers: Frank Field, George Howarth, Graham Stringer, Joan Ryan, Janet Anderson and Jim Dowd. They are thought to have forged a pact under which the others would go public if one of them was named.

Rebels accused Brown supporters of leaking Ms McDonagh's name. Brown aides denied it, accusing his opponents of trying – but failing – to foment a rebellion by disclosing the MPs' letters.

David Winnick, another Labour backbencher, said: "It would be strange in the present situation if there wasn't some discussion about the leadership. No one is in denial in the parliamentary party about the situation."

Senior Labour MPs believe the most likely vehicle for toppling Mr Brown is a cabinet revolt. As The Independent disclosed last month, senior ministers have decided to give him "one last chance" to revive Labour.

In another sign of discontent about Mr Brown, 12 Labour MPs have written a joint article for the Blairite magazine Progress calling for "a convincing new narrative" which is more than just "a series of policy initiatives".

The 12, including the former health sSecretary Patricia Hewitt, say there is a "yawning chasm" which the Labour Party needs to fill, or the Government will suffer a "hammer blow".