The House of Commons yesterday witnessed a Blairite revolt against Prime Minister Brown.
Ex-cabinet ministers Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt bolstered the Tories by calling for a secret ballot on Brown’s leadership, only months before a general election must be called.
Brown was informed just before parliamentary questions began that the pair had sent texts to Labour MPs saying the issue of the party’s leadership must be sorted out ‘once and for all’.
They claimed that Labour was ‘deeply divided’ and that without a secret ballot there was a risk ‘grumbling’ could continue through the election campaign.
In their letter former health secretary Hewitt and former defence secretary Hoon wrote: ‘Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance.
‘We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot.
‘There is a risk otherwise that the persistent background briefing and grumbling could continue up to and possibly through the election campaign, affecting our ability to concentrate all of our energies on getting our real message across.’
The pair were dubbed ‘betrayers’ by Morecambe Labour MP Geraldine Smith. She called their letter a ‘coward’s charter’ written by a ‘small bunch of malcontents’.
Describing the Blairites’ move as an ‘attempted coup d’etat’, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Tony Lloyd said: ‘Geoff Hoon has very little support, that’s the real issue for the Parliamentary Labour Party. We want Gordon Brown to ignore this.’
Hewitt claimed: ‘This is not an attempted coup.’ She added that ‘it’s an attempt to get this matter sorted out once and for all.’
Hoon claimed that he had not spoken to any current cabinet ministers about their views, saying that it was a ‘matter for the Parliamentary Labour Party’.
The pair were supported by Labour MP Frank Field and former home secretary Charles Clarke.
But Foreign Office Minister Chris Bryant said it would look ‘self indulgent within the party’.
Brown saw off efforts to unseat him last year, when cabinet minister James Purnell quit and called on him to go.
There were suggestions on Tuesday that Olympics minister Tessa Jowell might be about to quit to put pressure on Brown’s leadership.
Jowell said that the story was ‘complete and utter rubbish and I have no intention of resigning’.
Tony Woodley, Joint General Secretary of the Unite union, responded: ‘This is a divisive and damaging suggestion and the last thing the Party or the country need at this moment.
‘To proceed as Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt suggest would split Labour in the run-up to a vital General Election in which the political and economic dividing lines between Labour and the Tories are already clear.
‘Hoon and Hewitt need to remember that the issue of the Party leadership is not a matter for MPs alone, but for all Labour Party members and affiliated trade unions.
‘They are tearing up the Party rule book as well as political common sense.
‘This initiative should be abandoned, and all Labour MPs should concentrate on what millions of Labour supporters want – working flat-out in unity to avoid the disaster of a Tory victory at the forthcoming General Election.’