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Gordon Brown tries to save government with reshuffle


Latest update : 2009-06-05

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown reshuffles his government on Friday, in a bid to save it after several ministers, including Defence Secretary John Hutton, resigned in relation to an expenses scandal.

AFP - Britain's defence secretary dealt another body blow to Gordon Brown by quitting on Friday hours after a cabinet colleague had resigned calling for the prime minister to stand down.

Six of Brown's ministers, four of them in the cabinet, have resigned in the past week and further pressure building on the British leader with his Labour Party facing heavy losses in local and European elections.

In a shock move as polls closed late Thursday, James Purnell stepped down as Work And Pensions Secretary and called on Brown to resign, prompting the premier to reshuffle his government in a bid to relaunch his leadership.

Hours later, Defence Secretary John Hutton stepped down citing family reasons, media reported.

Purnell is so far the only one stepping down to knife Brown on the way out with a resignation call.

"I now believe that your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less, likely. That would be disastrous for our country," Purnell wrote in his resignation letter to Brown.

"I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning. As such I am resigning from government."

A general election must be held by mid-2010, which the main opposition Conservatives are tipped to win over Labour, according to opinion polls.

Both Purnell and Hutton are seen as Blairites -- supporters of the modernising agenda of former premier Tony Blair, and not natural Brown allies.

Brown's reshuffle Friday is likely to see heavyweights like finance minister Alistair Darling and Foreign Secretary David Miliband keep their jobs, media said, despite reports that Brown had wanted to move them.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson also looks set to take over from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

Smith plus Communities Secretary Hazel Blears and two junior ministers all indicated they would step down this week.

The reshuffle comes as local election results come in after Thursday's vote.    The picture looks bleak for Labour -- with only three of 34 councils declared, the ruling party has lost 23 seats, compared to the Conservatives who have gained 18.

Results of European Parliament elections also held Thursday will not be published until Sunday, in line with the rest of the continent.

Opinion polls suggested Labour could suffer some of its worst ever results and finish behind the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and even fringe eurosceptics the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Nevertheless, there was little sign of high-level support for Purnell early Friday as a series of ministers toured television and radio studios defending Brown.

Johnson, seen by many commentators as the most likely replacement for Brown, told reporters: "I continue to believe that Gordon Brown is the best man for the job.

"It is vital now, more than ever, that we unite for the sake of the party and the government."

Miliband, also seen as a Blairite, said he did not share Purnell's judgement of the situation and insisted: "Today is a day for working, not resigning".

Brown was "disappointed" by Purnell's departure and was now concentrating on "restructuring the government", a spokesman for his Downing Street office said.

Conservative leader David Cameron, tipped by polls to be prime minister within a year, said Purnell's resignation showed the government was "falling apart in front of our eyes" and renewed his call for a snap general election.

Purnell said in his resignation letter he was not standing for the leadership himself.

In power since 1997, Labour has been badly hit by the scandal over lavish expense claims from the public purse by lawmakers which has seen 17 lawmakers say they will step down since it broke.

Public anger is particularly high as Britain struggles with the worst recession since World War II.

Media have reported that a group of rebel MPs are circulating a letter calling on Brown to step down which they will hand to him Monday after all election results are in.

Labour Party rules state that 72 MPs must sign a motion of no-confidence to trigger a leadership election. Labour currently has 350 MPs, a majority of 63.

Date created : 2009-06-05