Britain prepares for polls

June 3, 2009 12:00 am

, LONDON, Jun 3 – The government of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was bracing for a bloodbath on the eve of local and European elections, after a string of resignations upped the pressure on the embattled premier.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s aides briefed reporters that she would step down in Brown’s next cabinet reshuffle, expected within days of Thursday’s elections in which Brown’s Labour party is bracing for a hammering.

Junior minister for children Beverley Hughes and Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson were also said to want to quit in the shake-up, for family reasons.

Meanwhile, there was widespread speculation that finance minister Alistair Darling and possibly Foreign Secretary David Miliband might be replaced.

Brown, who must call a general election within a year, was already under intense pressure amid an expenses row which has rocked parliament and sparked a string of resignation announcements by lawmakers.

In the latest fallout from the scandal, Labour’s disciplinary panel on Tuesday barred four MPs from standing as Labour candidates at the next election because of their expenses. Three had already said they would stand down.

Brown’s government is preparing for an electoral bloodbath on Thursday, when voters cast their ballots for the European Parliament and local authorities.

A Sunday Telegraph/ICM poll at the weekend suggested Labour would come in third in the European elections with just 17 percent of the vote, behind David Cameron’s Conservatives and the smaller centrist Liberal Democrats.

The cabinet reshuffle expected soon after was seen as a chance for Brown to reassert his authority on government, but this has been derailed.

Commentators viewed the ministers’ departures as a sign of Brown’s loose hold on his government, with Wednesday’s headline in the Daily Mirror calling it: "Meltbrown".

Several newspapers renewed their call – pushed by the Conservatives who are streaks ahead of Labour in opinion polls – for a snap election.

"Rats Desert Sinking Ship," splashed the Daily Mail, saying: "If they can’t even manage a show of unity and purpose now, in the last hours of an election campaign, isn’t this a sure sign that their time is up?"

Even the Guardian, the newspaper of the progressive left, said it was time for Brown to step aside for a new leader who had a chance of winning next year.

"The truth is that there is no vision from him, no plan, no argument for the future and no support… Labour has a year left before an election; its current leader would waste it. It is time to cut him loose," it said in an editorial.

Smith was one of the first senior politicians embarrassed by the recent leaks of information about lawmakers’ expenses claims, which revealed that she had claimed for two adult movies viewed by her husband.

The BBC reported that she told Brown two months ago that she planned to step down at the next reshuffle, but intends to stand for re-election as an MP.

Meanwhile Darling’s future is in doubt after he was forced to apologise for a "mistake" in his expenses. The Daily Telegraph reported that he claimed money on two properties at the same time — a breach of parliamentary rules.

The finance minister pledged to repay 350 pounds (575 dollars, 405 euros) and refused to speculate on his future, saying only that Brown must decide.

"I am not going to make any predictions about anything that is going to happen in the next week," the prime minister said in response.


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