Brown in deeper trouble as poll puts Labour third

Mon, Jun 1, 2009, 01:00

THE SENSE of crisis surrounding the leadership of British prime minister Gordon Brown deepened yesterday with a new poll warning that Labour could fall to third place behind the Liberal Democrats in a general election.

Renewed speculation about Mr Brown’s position already seemed the inevitable result of Labour’s predicted heavy defeats in this week’s European and English county council elections.

However, the remaining loyalty of ministers and backbenchers will be further tested by the knowledge that Labour could now be heading for an even greater general election defeat than it suffered under Michael Foot’s disastrous leadership in 1983.

During a major interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme yesterday, Mr Brown signalled his determination to remain in office, suggesting that he would ignore calls for him to stand down, even if they came from members of his cabinet.

The prime minister said he had been “shocked” by the abuses that had been uncovered. “To be honest, what I’ve seen offends my Presbyterian conscience,” he said. “What I’ve seen is something that is appalling. There are clear cases which may have to be answered for fraud.”

Mr Brown is expected to announce a major cabinet reshuffle immediately after the European election results – in which ICM projects Labour on a record low of just 17 per cent of the vote.

The continuing impact of the Westminster expenses scandal, meanwhile – and the difficulties Mr Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron face in deciding which offenders should fall and which survive – was dramatically underlined when the widely respected Liberal Democrat treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, called on chancellor Alistair Darling to resign or be sacked.

Mr Cable said he believed Mr Darling’s “moral authority had vanished with the revelation that he “flipped” the designation of his main and second homes four times in four years to maximise his benefit from expenses, while also using taxpayers’ money to pay his accountancy bills.

“Here is the company finance director caught with his fingers in the till,” Mr Cable wrote in his Mail on Sunday column.

“He doesn’t explain, he doesn’t apologise, he just blames his colleagues for not stopping him [by changing the system]. His moral authority has vanished. He must go.

“We need a chancellor focusing on the national accounts rather than his own,” Mr Cable added.

A radical reinvention of his government would be seen as Mr Brown’s last throw of the dice in an effort to reconnect with the British public ahead of the election now drawing ever closer.

However, the extent to which he enjoys a free hand is open to question following veiled warnings that senior Blairites would resist any attempt to sack communities secretary Hazel Blears following her embarrassment over expenses, while other ministers similarly accused of tax avoidance – like Jeff Hoon and James Purnell – would be retained.

Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has signalled he will back proposals by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg to give voters the power to “recall” or sack their MP if Mr Brown does not call an early general election.

Mr Cameron – who has faced renewed attention on his own mortgage interest claims for his constituency home – resisted the suggestion that he should encourage discredited MPs such as Andrew Mackay and his wife Julie Kirkbride, to leave parliament immediately.

The Conservative leader suggested that “a rash of byelections” would actually deflect from the widespread feeling that the general election should not be delayed now beyond late July or early September.

According to the ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Cameron’s Conservatives are on course for a general election victory with 40 per cent support, trailed by the Liberal Democrats on 25 per cent and Labour on 22 per cent.