Brown to battle Labour party rebellion

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown heads to his Labour Party's annual conference on Saturday, to fight a growing rebellion that could force him out of office. Earlier he rallied MPs, saying "we can come through this difficult time".


Gordon Brown faces the fight of his life at the Labour Party conference opening Saturday to squash a revolt which could topple him and prove he can lead Britain through global economic turmoil.

The prime minister will have to turn in a barnstorming performance at the convention in Manchester, northern England, to end questions about how long he can hang on to the job he took over from Tony Blair just 15 months ago.

The discontent came to a head this month as lawmakers returned from their summer break, with four rebels who spoke out against Brown forced out of their government jobs and 12 lawmakers declaring support for a leadership contest.

Brown, Blair's finance minister for 10 years, argues the current economic crisis -- which hit home in Britain when giant mortgage lender HBOS was bought by Lloyds TSB in what was effectively a rescue deal Thursday -- demands stability and experienced leadership.

"This is not the time for faint hearts. This is the time for people who know how to deal with difficult economic circumstances," he told Sky News television in an interview Friday.

"I believe we are in difficult economic times. I believe all the energies of the whole of the government and all of the party should be used getting the country through these difficult times."

Brown's centre-left Labour trail David Cameron's resurgent Conservatives by about 20 percent in most opinion polls, although one on Thursday put the Tory lead at 28 percent, the highest since Margaret Thatcher's heyday in 1988.

Some 54 percent of Labour activists want someone other than Brown as leader for the next general election, which must be held by mid-2010, according to a newspaper poll Friday.

The party's pre-conference gloom contrasts sharply with the atmosphere last year, when the new premier was riding a wave of "Gordonmania" with Labour well ahead in the polls.

Then, there was fevered speculation Brown would call a snap general election to capitalise on his popularity but he pulled back from this, triggering a slide in support later compounded by the near-collapse of Northern Rock bank.

Rebels now say Brown lacks the fresh ideas and charisma to pull Labour out of its slump.

"Gordon is like a Damien Hirst sheep -- trapped in formaldehyde, he lacks the qualities needed for a bold leap that would free him from his own goo," backbencher Alan Simpson said.

Senior ministers have backed Brown in public, although two -- Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell and Business Secretary John Hutton -- have refused to condemn those calling for a leadership election.

"I'm not going to criticise any of my colleagues who want Labour to do better, and neither am I going to criticise those who say for example that we do need to set out a stronger vision of what we're doing," Hutton said.

Others say that a leadership switch would be toxic at such a turbulent time economically.

Brown's deputy Harriet Harman told the Guardian there was "no one (the public) are more likely to respect on the economy than Gordon Brown".

And Jon Cruddas, a popular left-winger often touted as a leadership hopeful, told the Times voters were "watching with wide-open eyes unable to understand that we should become preoccupied with electing another party leader."

Some analysts say the crisis could be Brown's best hope of keeping his job.     Professor Patrick Dunleavy of the London School of Economics said: "It would look a bit idiotic to start switching to someone who was less economically experienced."

The premier himself pledged to face the problems head-on on as he had done with personal crises such as losing an eye in a rugby accident aged 16.

"My own response to the great challenges in my own life has been to confront them, resolute in the belief that there would always be something that could be done to overcome them," he wrote in a pre-conference policy document for lawmakers.

"And there always has been. Now, once more, I am confident that we can come through this difficult economic time."

Any leadership contest would need the support of at least 71 lawmakers.

Around 15,000 people will attend the Labour conference, which runs to Wednesday. The day for Brown's keynote speech has yet to be officially confirmed.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning