London: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced a renewed challenge to his leadership on Monday after support for the ruling Labour Party plunged to its lowest level in a century in European elections.
Compounding Labour’s woes, the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament for the first time. The BNP gained the seats in northern England at the expense of Brown’s Labour Party, which has been hurt by a scandal over politicians’ expenses.
Brown, who reshuffled his government after six ministers quit last week, was set to meet on Monday evening with Labour members of parliament, a number of whom have called on him to step down before a general election due within a year.
“It’s a very, very bad defeat for us,” Brown’s deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman told BBC television, adding: “But Brown was resilient and would fight on.”
Political commentators said that he had a desperate political fight ahead after the disastrous European poll showing. The right-of-centre Daily Telegraph newspaper said Brown was ‘on the edge’, while The Times declared him ‘out for the count’.
The normally supportive Guardian newspaper, which last week turned against Brown and called on him to step down, said Brown was facing a ‘make or break’ challenge to his leadership.
The turmoil rattled markets last week, pushing the pound lower. Investors are wary of uncertainty when Britain faces its deepest recession since World War-II and the budget deficit has reached a record £175 billion ($281 billion).
Brown’s departure would almost certainly precipitate an early election which the centre-right opposition Conservatives are expected to win after 12 years out of power. They are yet to flesh out their plans for restoring order to public finances.
With all but a few seats counted, Labour 15.3%, behind the anti-European Union UK Independence Party on 17.4% and more than 13 points behind the Conservatives, who got 28.6%. Labour’s share of the vote was some seven points down from the European election in 2004.
The performance gave fresh ammunition to Brown’s critics in the Labour Party after a traumatic week in which one departing minister, James Purnell, called on Brown to step aside and said he was an electoral liability.
Former finance minister Brown has not faced the electorate since he took over as prime minister from Tony Blair in 2007.
“If Labour MPs and Gordon Brown don’t get the message from these results we are finished,” said Labour MP John McDonnell, saying that Labour’s share of the vote was its lowest in a nationwide election since 1910.
“We need a complete change of political direction,” he said.
Nick Clegg, lesader of Britain’s third largest part the Liberal Democrats, said that both Brown and his Labour Party had been dealt a fatal blow in the European elections.
“There is now a very clear sense that Labour is finished,” he told Good Morning Television (GMTV) adding: “They are coming to the end of their 12-year dominance in British politics, people are looking for something different and new.”
Former Labour minister Charles Falconer called on Sunday for a change at the top to improve Labour’s chances in the general election and rebels among Labour members of parliament (MPs) are said to be canvassing support for a plot against Brown.
Critics say that Labour lacks a coherent policy agenda and that Brown is indecisive and a poor communicator. He appears to be unable to transfer his confidence on the world economic stage to domestic politics, they say.
Newspapers reported on Monday that Brown would delay the planned privatisation of Royal Mail and announce an Iraq war inquiry within days. A delay on Royal Mail would help curb Labour divisions after 140 MPs signed a motion opposing the deal.