Brown fights off revolt by two senior party figures
BRITISH Prime Minister Gordon Brown fought off a challenge to his leadership last night from two senior figures in his Labour party.
But the damaging challenge exposed a badly divided party months before a general election that polls predict Labour will lose.
Two former Labour cabinet members sent a letter to fellow Labour MPs calling for a secret ballot on Mr Brown's leadership. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt said in the letter that grumbling about Mr Brown's performance was dividing the party at the worst possible time.
"Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance," they said in the letter. "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," they wrote, referring to the Labour MPs.
Ms Hewitt said the letter was "not an attempted coup", but would not say whether she would back Brown if a vote were held.
Labour officials and most senior ministers moved to shore up Mr Brown's position. Several Cabinet ministers went on TV to declare their support for the prime minister.
Home Secretary Alan Johnson, seen as a possible successor to Mr Brown, said: "Gordon Brown is the best man to lead the Labour party.
"I respect Patricia and Geoff a great deal but I do not support their proposal," he added.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he supported the re-election of a Labour government led by Mr Brown, and Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said party members were united in their determination to see Mr Brown lead the party to victory in the election.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said Mr Brown "continues to have the support of his colleagues and we should carry on government business as usual".
Mr Brown's supporters said a leadership vote would make the party look divided and dash any hopes of an election win.
The prime minister's office downplayed the significance of the letter, saying Mr Brown "is relaxed and getting on with his job".
The Labour party said in a statement that "there is no provision for a secret ballot of MPs within the Labour party constitution or rules".
Tories were quick to capitalise on the letter. Chairman Eric Pickles said it was "irresponsible to have such a dysfunctional, faction-ridden Labour party running the country". "The only responsible thing the government can do is call a general election," he added.