Page last updated at 19:28 GMT, Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Cabinet ministers rebuff Hewitt and Hoon ballot call

Geoff Hoon: "I have not spoken to a single member of the Cabinet about this"

Cabinet ministers have been lining up behind Gordon Brown after two former ministers called for a secret ballot on his leadership.

Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon have written to Labour MPs saying the party was "deeply divided" and the issue must be sorted out "once and for all".

No 10 said the PM was "getting on with the job" while senior figures came out to talk down the attempted challenge.

The Tories and Lib Dems urged Mr Brown to call a general election now.

Senior Labour sources told the BBC the move was "completely unconstitutional" although another Brown critic, Barry Sheerman, said a vote could be held at next Monday's weekly meeting of Labour MPs.

'Frustration'

It is understood Mr Brown learned of the letter on Wednesday morning, before finishing his preparations for prime minister's questions.

In the letter Ms Hewitt - a former health secretary - and Mr Hoon, a former defence secretary who was also Labour's chief whip, said it was clear the party was "deeply divided over the question of the leadership".

This is not an attempted coup
Patricia Hewitt

They said the continued "uncertainty" was "damaging our ability to set out our strong case to the electorate" and only a secret ballot of all Labour MPs would resolve the issue.

They wrote: "There is a risk otherwise that the persistent background briefing and grumbling could continue up to and possibly through the election campaign."

Ms Hewitt, who is stepping down as an MP at the election, told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "This is not an attempted coup. It's exactly what we say in the letter - it's an attempt to get this matter sorted out once and for all."

'Self indulgent'

Mr Hoon told the BBC he had not spoken to any current cabinet ministers before writing the letter.

He said: "This is about ensuring that the Labour Party can go united into what is in any event going to be a difficult campaign supporting a strong leader that we can all back."

Weeks before the country gets to choose who should be its next prime minister Labour MPs are considering taking the decision for them
Nick Robinson
BBC's political editor

As the day progressed, cabinet ministers voiced their support for Mr Brown's leadership, including Home Secretary Alan Johnson - touted as a future Labour leader - Justice Secretary Jack Straw, Energy Secretary Ed Miliband and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls told the BBC Mr Hoon and Ms Hewitt were not speaking for "the vast majority of members of the parliamentary party, the Labour Party, or the cabinet too".

He added: "If people thought this was the right time for us to turn inwards the country would think we had lost our marbles."

Chancellor Alistair Darling said: "As far as I'm concerned we should be concentrating on the business of government and getting through the recession.

"The PM and I met this afternoon and we discussed how we take forward economic policies to secure the recovery. I won't be deflected from that."

And deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said they were "getting on with our jobs as ministers in a government that Gordon leads".

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said it was noticeable that, six hours after the news broke, Foreign Secretary David Miliband - also seen as a possible future leader - had not publicly commented.

However, Mr Miliband later issued a statement saying he "was working closely with the prime minister on foreign policy issues" and "supported the re-election campaign for a Labour government that he is leading".

Labour MP Frank Field and former home secretary Charles Clarke, who have criticised Mr Brown in the past, both told the BBC they welcomed the call. Former minister Fiona MacTaggart also said she supported the ballot and challenged claims it was not backed by Labour MPs.

This kind of thing is diversionary, it's stupid
Margaret Beckett

And Mr Sheerman, who acknowledged he was one of the "usual suspects" in calling for a change of leadership, told the BBC: "There are many of us that still passionately believe that if you have a party leader whose personal rating is well below his party's, then you have to look at the leadership."

But chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party Tony Lloyd told the BBC a leadership ballot was not what the party, or the British public, wanted.

"Geoff Hoon has very little support and that's the real issue for the Parliamentary party - what we want is Gordon Brown ignoring this."

Senior Labour sources told the BBC that the move was "completely unconstitutional" and the Labour Party could only call a leadership election through a card vote at the party conference.

'Dysfunctional'

Conservative Party chairman Eric Pickles said Labour MPs were "turning on the prime minister".

"It's irresponsible to have such a dysfunctional, faction-ridden Labour Party running the country."

And Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's chief of staff Danny Alexander said Labour had "given up hope" of winning the election and were now in "a desperate scrabble to save their own seats".

Plaid's Westminster leader Elfyn Llwyd said Labour's "petty internal squabbling" showed how out of touch they were.

SNP leader Alex Salmond said Mr Brown needed to have a vote on his leadership to clear the air.

Opposition parties urged the prime minister to call a general election - one must be called by early June but 6 May is currently considered the most likely date.

Mr Brown has faced continued criticism from some within his party since he succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 - when no-one got enough support to challenge him for the job.

But he saw off efforts to unseat him last year, when cabinet minister James Purnell quit and called on him to go.



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SEE ALSO
The Full Story: Brown challenged
06 Jan 10 |  UK Politics
Profiles: Hoon and Hewitt
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In full: Text of Brown letter
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Ballot: Who's for, who's against?
06 Jan 10 |  UK Politics
Labour leadership rules
25 Sep 10 |  UK Politics

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