Gordon Brown was hit by a growing Labour rebellion after he ordered his party's MPs to repay expenses claims deemed excessive by an independent audit.
Some ministers joined the backbench criticism of Mr Brown, saying he had made a catastrophic error in May by calling in the retired civil servant Sir Thomas Legg to investigate MPs' expenses claims over the past five years. One cabinet minister told The Independent: "His handling of expenses has been disastrous. By now, we should be moving on to the clean-up through the new rules to be proposed by the Kelly Committee [on Standards in Public Life]. Instead we have gone back to square one. It sends a terrible signal to the public."
As Mr Brown threatened to remove the whip from Labour MPs who defy Sir Thomas's repayment demands, the Commons Leader, Harriet Harman, appeared to take a softer line. She told Labour backbenchers yesterday that Sir Thomas's letters to MPs were not the last word because they had three weeks to make representations before he issued his final verdict.
Some Labour MPs threatened to defy both Sir Thomas and Mr Brown, who said yesterday: "We've got to call an end to this and therefore people must abide by the decisions that are made and make the payments that are appropriate; Parliament will require them to do so."
The Labour revolt gave Mr Brown a headache because David Cameron appeared to face less opposition inside his Tory ranks after warning that any MPs who refused to pay back money requested by Sir Thomas would be barred from being general election candidates.
Eight cabinet ministers will pay back a total of £6,646 after receiving letters from Sir Thomas. Some backbenchers plan to force a Commons vote after Sir Thomas presents his final report to a Commons committee next month, in the hope of throwing it out. In an unusual move, Labour and Tory backbenchers discussed making a joint appeal to Sir Thomas to rethink the annual limits he has imposed retrospectively of £2,000 for cleaning and £1,000 for gardening. But the leadership of both main parties will quash the idea. They are worried about a public backlash if the Legg recommendations are blocked.
Labour anger boiled over when more than 50 backbenchers confronted Ms Harman and Nick Brown, the Chief Whip, at a meeting yesterday.
Martin Salter, Labour MP for Reading West, said last night: "If the Prime Minister thought he was going to draw a line by launching Legg, it has achieved the opposite effect."
Bill Etherington, who is standing down as MP for Sunderland North at the election, challenged Sir Thomas to take legal action against him. He said: "If he has decided I shouldn't have claimed something which I feel was justifiable under the rules at the time, then I won't pay it."
It emerged that Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, warned Mr Brown at a meeting of Labour MPs on Monday that the expenses issue would haunt the Government until the election. Another MP, Tom Levitt, told Mr Brown that he would "consider his position at the next election" rather than return expenses he believes he claimed fully in accordance with the rules. As the Prime Minister outlined the timetable Sir Thomas was working towards, one MP heckled from the back of the meeting: "Who appointed him?"
One left-wing MP said: "Gordon Brown was a shambles – I think he has lost the plot. There's a feeling that Legg might be the trigger for one last attempt to remove him." A centre-left MP said: "There's a lot of muttering about Gordon Brown's role in all of this. When he set up the inquiry he failed to give it a proper, precise remit."
MPs in all parties complained that the Legg letters were full of inaccuracies. Ann Widdecombe, the former shadow home secretary, questioned the legality of his demands. "If any other employer said 'we have now changed the rules so here's a bill', that employer would be up before a tribunal," she said.
* Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are to sit side-by-side and be grilled by MPs on live television next Tuesday about the best way to get more women, ethnic minority and disabled people to enter Parliament. It will be seen as a foretaste of the TV debates that are likely to be held ahead of the general election.
Payback day: MPs and their demands
The following members have been asked to pay back part of their expenses claims by Sir Thomas Legg:
Gordon Brown £12,415.10 for cleaning, decorating and gardening
Liam Byrne £1,860.54 Phone bill, letting agency charges
Shaun Woodward £1,425 mortgage
Lord Mandelson £800 gardening
Jack Straw £600 administrative error
Alistair Darling £554 furniture
David Miliband £434 mortgage
Yvette Cooper £13.50 mortgage
Ed Balls £13.50 mortgage
Patrick McLoughlin £4,058.24 cleaning and mortgage
Caroline Spelman £2,400 mobile phone bill, electricity, cleaning
Cheryl Gillan £1,884.23 mortgage
Andrew Lansley £1,782.22 mortgage
Owen Patterson £911.21 repairs, insurance, security mortgage
William Hague £642.70 mortgage
Oliver Letwin £613.70 service and maintenance
Eric Pickles £300 cleaning
Sir George Young £104.68 utilities
Nick Clegg £910 gardening
Pete Wishart £1,632 flat rental, utilities
Angus Robertson £1,217 furniture and DVD player
Stewart Hosie £379 hotel costs
Angus MacNeil £133 council taxReuse content