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Old 3rd June 2009, 19:31   #1 (permalink)
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British govt in 'meltdown' as ministers quit

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown lost his fourth minister within 24 hours on Wednesday as he faced taunts that his government was in meltdown on the eve of polls which could seal his fate.

Amid talk that the wave of resignations may be the beginning of the end of his premiership, Brown faced a rowdy Prime Minister's Questions session at which Conservative leader David Cameron urged a snap general election.

"The government is collapsing before our eyes," said Cameron, tipped by opinion polls to be elected as premier within a year.

"Why doesn't he take the one act of authority left to him: get down to the palace, ask for a dissolution (of parliament), call that election?"

Nick Clegg -- leader of the second opposition Liberal Democrats -- said Brown's Labour Party was "in total meltdown".

The premier tried to hit back by stressing his policies on pulling Britain out of recession and dismissing the Conservatives as nothing but "talk, talk and talk", prompting Cameron to charge that he was "in denial".

The exchanges came on the eve of Thursday's European Parliament and English local council elections, which are predicted to be a bloodbath for Labour -- and barely an hour after Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears said she was quitting.

Blears said she was stepping down to return to "grassroots" politics but had been accused of "totally unacceptable behaviour" by Brown last month over her expense claims.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, left embarrassed after it emerged she claimed on expenses for two adult films watched by her husband, has confirmed she will step down at the next cabinet reshuffle, expected as early as Friday.

Children's minister Beverley Hughes also said Tuesday she was going and will reportedly be joined by Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson, a close Brown ally.

The recent row over lavish expense claims by lawmakers, which has led 15 members of parliament to say they will quit, has piled fresh pressure on Brown's already unpopular premiership amid accusations he has been slow to respond to public anger.

"Rats Desert Sinking Ship" and "Meltbrown" were among headlines Wednesday while The Guardian newspaper, traditionally sympathetic to Brown and Labour, symbolically withdrew its support for him.

"It is time to cut him loose," it said in an extended editorial.

Labour "faces its worst defeat in its history tomorrow but the prime minister does not recognise his direct responsibility for the mayhem.

"The truth is that there is no vision from him, no plan, no argument for the future and no support."

There are widespread reports that finance minister Alistair Darling, who has led Britain's response to the recession, could be demoted in a reshuffle.

Brown twice dodged questions from Cameron on Wednesday over whether Darling would still be in place in a week's time.

Some reports suggest Brown could face a leadership challenge before the next general election, which must be held within a year, possibly from Health Secretary Alan Johnson.

Others say there is little interest from anyone in taking over the helm of a party which looks likely to be forced out of office by the Conservatives within months.

British media reported that a group of rebel MPs had started circulating a letter calling on Brown to step down which they will hand to him Monday after all the 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.

An Ipsos Mori poll Tuesday said support for Labour had plunged to 18 percent, down 10 points in the last month since the expenses scandal.

The Conservatives are 22 percentage points ahead, according to the telephone poll of 1,001 adults between May 29 and 31.

Bookmakers Paddy Power cut its odds on Brown leaving Downing Street in the next few months to just 5/4.
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