2 former UK govt ministers challenge Gordon Brown

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LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced a challenge to his leadership Wednesday from within his own Labour Party, months before a national election that disaffected Labour supporters believe he is sure to lose.

Two former members of Brown’s Cabinet sent a letter to fellow Labour Party lawmakers calling for a secret ballot on Brown’s leadership. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt said in the letter that grumbling about Brown’s performance was dividing the party at the worst possible time.

“Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance,” they said in the letter, which they released to the media. “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,” it said, referring to the Labour lawmakers.

Hewitt said the letter was “not an attempted coup.” She would not say whether she would back Brown if a vote were held.

Tony Lloyd, who chairs the Parliamentary Labour Party, said there was “very little support” for Hoon and Hewitt’s move.

Lloyd said the party’s constitution did not allow for the ballot called for by Hoon and Hewitt, and it was not clear whether Brown’s opponents could force a vote.

Britain must hold an election by June, and opinion polls give the opposition Conservatives a big lead over Labour, which has been in power since 1997. Brown’s opponents within Labour say his lackluster performance will ensure electoral defeat.

Unseating Brown would mean a quick party leadership contest and send an untested leader into a national election.

Brown replaced Tony Blair when he stepped down as prime minister in June 2007, and Brown has never faced voters in an election as leader. Many within his party doubt the taciturn Brown has the popular appeal to win. Opponents say Brown is tainted by the economic crisis — he was Treasury chief for 10 years until 2007 — and by a scandal over lawmakers’ inflated expenses that outraged the public.

Brown already has faced a series of challenges to his authority from within a fractious Labour Party.

Most dramatically, in June he saw a flurry of Cabinet resignations designed to encourage a rival contender to challenge his leadership. The most likely successors — Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson — backed Brown, and that rebellion fizzled.

Conservatives were quick to capitalize on Wednesday’s letter. Party Chairman Eric Pickles said it was “irresponsible to have such a dysfunctional, faction-ridden Labour Party running the country.”

“We cannot go on like this,” he said. “The only responsible thing the government can do is call a general election.”