Prime Minister Gordon Brown will remain at the helm of Britain’s ruling Labour Party after beating back a rebellion by members unhappy over its worst-ever defeat in voting for the European Parliament.
Confronting dissidents at a two-hour closed-door meeting in Parliament in London late yesterday, Brown won the support of most Labour lawmakers by promising to make unspecified changes to his leadership style and agenda.
“I know I need to improve,” Brown told the meeting, according to his spokesman. He shrugged off calls for his resignation, saying, “You solve the problem not by walking away but by doing something about it.”
Although Brown’s supporters warned that a leadership fight would prompt a general election that Labour would almost certainly lose, the prime minister’s hold on power remains fragile. The wounds inflicted may be reopened if the party’s poll ratings don’t improve or if Brown presses ahead with controversial plans to clamp down on welfare benefits and sell a stake in the postal service.
Tomorrow, lawmakers vote on a motion proposed by opposition parties calling on Brown to hold a general election immediately instead of waiting until the deadline a year from now. If a handful of Labour lawmakers rebel or neglect to show up, Brown, who has a 63-seat majority, could lose the vote.
Former ministers Charles Clarke, Stephen Byers and Fiona Mactaggart yesterday joined a list of 19 Labour lawmakers saying Brown should step down after the party finished third in elections for the European Parliament.
The size of the mutiny was too small to trigger a leadership contest, and the challenge unified both the Cabinet and most of the party in backing Brown. While six ministers have walked out of the government, none followed James Purnell in calling for Brown to step aside.
Unless the prime minister quits, 70 Labour members of Parliament would have to publicly call for him to go before the party could consider replacing him. More than 300 attending the meeting in a packed committee room banged tables and cheered for Brown when he arrived to speak.
Brown’s standing has withered as disclosures of lawmakers’ personal spending combined with the effects of a deepening recession and rising unemployment. The British National Party, whose constitution permits only whites to join, won its first two seats in the European Parliament.
The challenge to Brown from his allies is the toughest for a sitting premier since John Major called a leadership contest to face down rebels in his Conservative Party in 1995.
This time, the opposition to Brown centers on his personality and leadership style. Caroline Flint quit as Europe minister last week, saying Brown didn’t take her seriously and didn’t include her in Cabinet discussions.
An opinion poll by ComRes Ltd. showed that Home Secretary Alan Johnson would be more popular than Brown, 58, and could deprive the Conservatives of the votes they need to command a majority in Parliament.
With Johnson as Labour leader, the opposition would fall six seats short of a majority. Against Brown, Conservatives would have 74 seats more than all rival parties combined, according to ComRes, which finished its poll of 1,001 adults on June 7th.