LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown beat off a challenge to his authority on Monday, winning over Labour members of parliament after admitting mistakes and taking responsibility for a week of political turmoil.
Addressing Labour’s 350 MPs a day after his party suffered a resounding defeat in European elections, Brown expressed contrition but said he was determined to fight on as leader after one of the most difficult weeks of his premiership.
”I know I need to improve,“ Brown told the MPs, according to a spokesman. ”I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses. There are some things I can do well, some not so well.
“You solve the problem not by walking away but by facing it and doing something about it,” he said, earning cheers and applause from the majority in the room, according to witnesses.
Several senior Labour members, including Charles Clarke, a former interior minister, called for Brown to step down. However, most threw their weight behind him ahead of a general election due within a year which the opposition center-right Conservatives are tipped to win.
The head of Labour’s parliamentary group, Tony Lloyd, said he now saw little chance of Brown being ousted from office.
“I do not believe there will be any challenge to Gordon Brown within our party,” he told Sky News.
Brown critics at the meeting said the prime minister had been “put on probation,” suggesting there would be no immediate further challenge to his leadership.
Minutes later, a former Labour cabinet minister called for Brown to go.
“Now is the time for Gordon Brown to stand down as Labour leader and as prime minister,” Stephen Byers, an ally of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, told a meeting of Labour activists.
Brown, in power since 2007 when he took over from Blair in mid-term, has been under pressure since a parliamentary expenses scandal caused popular disillusion with politics and, particularly, the party that has been in power for 12 years.
The unrest prompted six senior ministers to resign last week. Brown reshuffled his cabinet but Sunday’s European election results -- giving Labour its smallest share of a national vote in 100 years -- dealt a new blow to his authority.
An opinion poll in Tuesday’s Independent newspaper may give ammunition to those wanting a new leader.
The ComRes survey found that the Conservatives would win a big parliamentary majority if Brown leads Labour into the next election. However, if interior minister Alan Johnson replaced Brown, the Conservatives would fall six seats short of an overall majority. Johnson has pledged allegiance to Brown.
Investors have been unsettled by talk of a leadership battle at a time of economic turmoil and soaring government borrowing.
The pound hit a near two-week low against the dollar on Monday after the election results raised the possibility of a Labour leadership challenge. Sterling later erased its losses.
“The election results put more pressure on Brown,” said Paul Robinson, chief sterling strategist at Barclays in London.
“We don’t know who will be prime minister in a month’s time ... We don’t know if he’s going to stay, which is an uncomfortable position for an economy to be in,” he said.
The collapse in the Labour vote in the European Parliament election, which followed a dismal showing in local government elections last week, helped the far-right British National Party (BNP) win its first two seats in the assembly.
Labour won 15.7 percent of the European vote, behind the anti-EU UK Independence Party with 16.5 percent and the Conservatives with 27.7 percent. Labour’s vote was about seven points down from the 2004 European election.
Finance minister Alistair Darling was quoted as saying Labour’s failure to articulate a vision was to blame for the BNP’s success. “People felt disillusioned with us and didn’t vote for us. That’s our fault. We should be able to inspire confidence,” he told The Guardian newspaper.
Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw appealed for a halt to the leadership speculation, saying Labour would not win a fourth term in government unless it ended. He urged anyone who wanted to challenge Brown to “stand up and declare themselves.”
Although considered a sharp politician, Brown frequently appears dour and unable to connect with voters.
One junior minister who resigned accused him of treating her as “window dressing,” while another who quit on Monday said she was tired of “threats and intimidation.”
A change of leader would almost certainly precipitate an early election this year which Labour is in no shape to fight.
Brown and his leadership circle believe their best chance of winning an election rests on a strong economic turnaround.
There have been some signs that Britain may be starting to emerge from recession faster than forecast, but Bank of England policymakers have said the recovery may be slow.
Additional reporting by Keith Weir, Kate Kelland, Luke Baker and Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Andrew Dobbie