Leading article: A tormented Prime Minister suffers another hail of arrows

Disastrous election results weaken the Prime Minister still further

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Another day, another crisis in the prolonged torment of this most beleaguered Prime Minister. Last night Gordon Brown had to watch as Labour recorded one of the sharpest falls in its vote ever, on a good night for the Conservatives and an even better night for alternative parties such as Ukip. Labour candidates found themselves relegated in some places to fourth or fifth, the collapse handing the loathsome BNP its first seat. Almost anyone but Labour was the leitmotif of the European elections in Britain.

Can any recent tenant of No 10 have been so embattled, so embarrassingly – almost pitiably – weak, and still be hanging on? Even John Major at his lowest point was not subject to as much public humiliation as Gordon Brown. Yet Mr Brown, St Sebastian-like, stands tied to his post, suffering the unending hail of arrows.

What other prime minister has been booed by British veterans of D-Day, on the beaches of Normandy to boot? What other prime minister has had to accept the resignations of half a dozen ministers, plus very public expressions of no confidence? And what other prime minister has had to contend with a forthright call from a former Lord Chancellor for a change of leader?

Across Europe, the far right did well, but in many places not as well as feared. The early results in the Netherlands, where the xenophobic right came second to the governing Christian Democrats were an indicator, but not a template for the rest of Europe. Centre-right governing parties in France, Germany, Italy and Poland saw their positions strengthened. The anti-incumbency vote that had been anticipated did not materialise. Heading the governing party therefore offers Gordon Brown no excuse for Labour's losses in Britain, although centre-left parties generally did poorly. But the good news for David Cameron was not unalloyed. His party did well, but his decision to take the Conservative MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right grouping, the EPP, now looks even more badly judged than it did before. Instead of being part of a stronger centre-right bloc, his MEPs will find themselves even more out on a limb than it initially seemed they would.

But the main trend emerging last night was the dreadful tally for Labour and the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. His response at every stage so far has been to absorb the blows and hold firm – doggedly, almost frighteningly so. But how long will he be able to hold out?

When he boasted of his resilience after the local election results on Friday, he was not wrong. That same resilience took him to London's East End yesterday, for a hastily arranged "public" meeting. You could see the logic: anything for television pictures showing a leader less isolated and more upbeat than the sad, lonely figure at Arromanches. The Newham meeting was the closest Mr Brown has come to emulating his predecessor's masochism strategy, except that the audience was largely supportive. It was not the friendly questions, but the platform party that told the tale.

The Prime Minister was accompanied by perhaps his two least favourite people – bar his newly declared ex-ministerial adversaries. There was Lord Mandelson, fielding the contributions he deemed to require his expert touch. And there was Harriet Harman, very sensibly attired, demonstrating that Gordon knows how to treat women as grown-up colleagues. Labour's leadership, the message ran, and Gordon's premiership, were united and not to be dislodged.

It has, of course, come to a pretty pass when such last-minute Sunday afternoon meetings are thought necessary. And it could only be a scene-setter for Mr Brown's confrontation today with his parliamentary party. Of all the critical encounters he has endured, this could be the one to make or break his leadership.

These elections were the first time Mr Brown, if only vicariously, submitted himself to the will of the people. The results were little short of devastating. It is true that Gordon Brown has been unlucky as well as inept. He won the prize he had coveted for so long just as the economy was about to turn. Financial services – the very sector he had championed as Chancellor – were in the vanguard of the economic crisis and the recession. When financial meltdown ceded the headlines, it was to a scandal – MPs' expenses – that was still more lethal for the government of the day. For weeks now, though, the business of government has been paralysed. Rather than focusing on measures to restore the national finances and the dignity of Parliament, ministers have been preoccupied with their own survival.

The reshuffle, in which Mr Brown could only neutralise potential enemies, showed how far his authority had seeped away. If there is to be a rebellion, its leaders should show their colours and let the fight begin. If not, Mr Brown must be left to consider the verdict of the electorate, while getting on with his job. There is urgent work to be done. If the rebels are too divided to oust him, he must be allowed to do it.

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