Gordon Brown in danger after Labour's share of vote
collapses to historic low of 16 per cent
in disastrous European elections
Monday, 8 June 2009
By Andrew Grice and Nigel Morris
The pressure on Gordon Brown to stand down intensified last
night as the Labour vote went into meltdown in the European elections.
Labour won the lowest share of the vote in a nationwide
election in its history, as support in its traditional heartlands collapsed
following the scandal over MPs' expenses. In Yorkshire and the Humber, it
suffered the humiliation of losing a seat to the far-right British National
Party, which won its first seat in a nationwide election.
In Wales, Labour failed to top the poll for the first time since 1918; the
Tories came first and Ukip gained a seat from Labour. In the North East,
Labour's share of the vote dropped from 34 to 25 per cent. In Scotland, Labour
was pushed into second place by the Scottish National Party.
The Labour vote appeared to free fall in the South East and
South West, where in some areas the party plummeted to fifth. In London,
Labour's vote dropped by four percentage points.
Labour officials admitted the party could finish third nationwide behind Ukip
and the Tories. Labour was on course to win about 16 per cent of the vote, the
lowest since it began fighting elections as an independent party in 1918.
A BBC projection early today forecast that the Tories would win 27 per cent of
votes, Ukip 17 per cent, Labour 16 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 14 per cent,
the Greens 9 per cent and the BNP 6 per cent. Labour's crushing defeat could
prove a tipping point for many Labour MPs as they gather in Westminster today to
decide Mr Brown's fate.
Many will calculate that they would lose their seats if last night's results
were repeated at the general election. They left the Prime Minister on a knife
edge as he prepares for a showdown at a critical meeting of the Parliamentary
Harriet Harman, Labour's deputy leader, admitted the results were "very dismal"
but insisted they were not Mr Brown's fault. "Our supporters are absolutely
furious with us about expenses," she said. "They expect us to have higher
standards than the Tories."
Nick Brown, the Government's chief whip, challenged rebel MPs to put up or shut
up: "The time has come for them to nominate their candidate, see if they've got
sufficient nominations and take the issue to a party conference. If they can't
do that, they should get behind the leadership that the overwhelming majority of
party members support."
Mr Brown is preparing key concessions to Labour MPs in an attempt to hang on to
his job. The Independent has learnt that controversial plans to part-privatise
the Royal Mail may be shelved on commercial grounds.
Although the Government would remain committed to selling a 30 per cent stake,
it may delay the move to maximise the likely return for the taxpayer. Ministers
believe more bidders would emerge when the recession is over. So far, only one
firm offer has been tabled, by the private equity group CVC.
The delay would be welcomed by many Labour MPs, 149 of whom have signed a
Commons motion opposing the sell-off. And within days, Mr Brown will announce a
formal inquiry into the Iraq war and its aftermath, a move that would be
welcomed by Labour critics of the 2003 invasion.
He has asked Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, to advise him on the
scope and timing of an investigation and the possible membership of the inquiry
team. Aides said the Prime Minister had always favoured the move but wanted to
wait until the bulk of British troops had withdrawn from Iraq.
Despite the planned concessions, rebel Labour MPs warned they would step up
their campaign to unseat Mr Brown. The Prime Minister will try to rally support
at the make-or-break meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) tonight.
Although the new-look Cabinet remained firm in its support of Mr Brown
yesterday, his critics hope a backbench rebellion – "the peasants' revolt" –
could persuade senior ministers he must go. "If 100 MPs say it's all over, he
will have lost the confidence of the PLP," one former Cabinet minister said last
But Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary and unofficial deputy prime minister,
played down the impact of the hammering for Labour. He told the plotters they
could not blame the results on Mr Brown, saying the attacks on his leadership
and the MPs' expenses affair were responsible. He told The Independent: "People
cannot spend days destabilising the Government and criticising the Prime
Minister and then demand good results."
A Labour spokeswoman insisted the party's performance could not be translated
into a general election result: "People are angry about expenses and as the
party of government we have borne the brunt of that."
Yesterday Mr Brown admitted he faced "testing times" but said Labour could not
turn in on itself and away from the serious challenges facing the nation. He was
given a show of loyalty by Labour activists in East London after warning that
the public would not understand if the Government gave up at a time when it
faced the problems of tackling the recession and cleaning up Parliament. "What
would they think of us if ever we walked away from them at a time of need? We
are sticking with them," he said. "We have a purpose, we have a mission, we have
a task ahead. We are going to get on with that task of building a better
Close allies believe the Prime Minister can see off his critics because of the
Cabinet-level support and a recognition among backbenchers that a change of
leader would need to be followed by an early general election in which many of
them would lose their seats.
But Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the former Lord Chancellor and a close friend of
Tony Blair called for an "urgent debate" on Mr Brown's leadership, telling the
BBC: "We need unity above all. Can we get unity under the current leadership? I
am not sure we can and we need to debate it urgently and I think probably it
will need a change in leader."
His intervention fuelled claims by left-wingers that Blairites were plotting
against Mr Brown.
Dissident Labour MPs promised to press ahead with their plans to publish a
round-robin letter demanding his departure after the PLP meeting.
Mr Brown and Labour whips aimed a telephone campaign at wavering backbenchers
over the weekend, offering a range of threats and inducements.
Labour milestone: Worst result ever
As it slumped to its worst performance since the modern party was formed in
1918, last night Labour failed to top the poll in Wales for the first time after
an unbroken 91 years of dominance. Factions of the Liberal Party representing
the interests of the working classes broke away in 1893 to form the Independent
Labour Party, which held together an association of socialist MPs. The
parliamentary group took the Labour Party name in 1906, electing Kier Hardie as
leader. It adopted individual membership 12 years later.
Brickbats and bouquets: Voices from the party
*Nick Raynsford, former minister: "We have seen over the last week a whole
series of events all indicating the profound unhappiness of very many MPs ... If
we don't take the right decision now that mood of unhappiness will continue. We
will have a long lingering downward decline towards ... almost inevitable
electoral defeat next year. That would be disastrous."
*First Secretary Lord Mandelson:
"Stop taking shots at the Prime Minister ...
If we get the policy agenda right, and if it's sufficiently bold and decisive,
then the public will take a different look at us."
*Alan Johnson, the new Home Secretary:
"I think Gordon Brown is the best man for the job. You are never going to get a
politician that is absolutely perfect in every respect, Tony Blair wasn't, none
of his predecessors have been."