Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Thursday survived a “coup” attempt by two former Cabinet Ministers fuelling speculation about his political future as he continued to struggle in opinion polls with a general election barely months away.
The former high-profile Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, and the former Health Secretary, Patrician Hewitt — both identified with Mr. Brown’s predecessor and arch rival Tony Blair — caught Downing Street by surprise when they shot off a joint letter to the chairman of the parliamentary party, Tony Lloyd, demanding a secret ballot to decide whether MPs had faith in the Prime Minister’s leadership. Simultaneously, they copied the letter to party MPs seeking their support for the move arguing that it presented a “clear opportunity to finally lay the [leadership] to rest.” It was the third time in six months that he faced a leadership challenge.
Apparently, Mr. Brown got to know of the “plot” minutes before he was to appear in the Commons for the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions. Downing Street was reportedly plunged into crisis as it tried to shore up support for the Prime Minister who is widely seen by his party colleagues as an electoral liability because of his lack of charisma, a series of policy “wobbles” and his inability to “connect” with the voters.
Significantly, initially none of his Cabinet colleagues rushed to his rescue and when they eventually did come forward — reportedly after he “spent several hours” trying to persuade them — their tone was lukewarm. Observers noted that Foreign Secretary David Miliband, seen as a front-runner in the event of a leadership bid, took hours to respond to No 10’s “SOS” and then issued what The Guardian described as the “most equivocal statement” without explicitly denouncing the “plot.”
According to the BBC, the plotters believed that at least six senior Cabinet Ministers would back them in the “right circumstances” but developed cold feet.
Mr. Brown put on a brave face dismissing the “coup” attempt as a “storm in a tea cup” but commentators said that although the plot had failed it had seriously damaged his authority ahead of the elections.