Gordon Brown was fighting for his political life after James Purnell resigned from the cabinet and called on the prime minister to “stand aside” to give Labour a chance of winning the next election.
The prime minister brought forward his planned reshuffle to Friday morning in a bid to shore up his battered authority but faced another challenge as Alistair Darling defied Mr Brown’s attempts to move him from the Treasury.
The open call for Mr Brown to quit from the Blairite work and pensions secretary – the third cabinet minister to resign in as many days – came as the polls closed on local and European elections in which Labour was braced to suffer its worst results for decades.
Mr Darling on Thursday night told Mr Brown to his face he did not want to leave the Treasury, setting up a bruising trial of strength with the prime minister who wants to make Ed Balls, his close ally, chancellor.
Mr Darling insisted it would be damaging for financial stability and the economy if he was forced to stand aside; the chancellor is expected to quit the government rather than be demoted to another cabinet job. David Miliband is also resisting a move from his post as foreign secretary.
In a devastating resignation letter, Mr Purnell told Mr Brown his “continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely. That would be disastrous for our country.” He said he was calling on the prime minister to “stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning”.
The politically explosive move leaves Mr Brown extremely vulnerable, not least because Mr Purnell – in contrast to this week’s first two cabinet resignations – was not expected to be sacked in the reshuffle.
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, said the government was “falling apart in front of our eyes”. Mr Purnell’s resignation meant the case for calling an immediate general election had “gone from being strong and powerful to completely unanswerable”.
Downing Street made little effort to disguise its anger at the ambush sprung by Mr Purnell, saying Mr Brown had been informed of the resignation only minutes before the news was broadcast as the polls closed at 10pm. Aides said Mr Brown was “disappointed” by the move, which he considered “mistaken and misjudged – it can only damage the Labour party”.
Two leading Blairities, culture secretary Andy Burnham and defence secretary John Hutton, rallied to Mr Brown’s defence. But some backbenchers echoed Mr Purnell’s call for the prime minister to step down. One Blairite former minister claimed Mr Brown would be “gone by Friday night”.
Mr Purnell insisted he was not part of an organised coup. But his resignation will fuel dissent within the party. MPs are gathering signatures for a petition calling on Mr Brown to stand down once Thursday’s election results are known.
Initial indications from Thursday’s local elections pointed to disastrous results for Labour. The Tories were optimistic they had seized control of Staffordshire, one of four councils Labour could lose in what Conservative insiders branded a “ghastly” set of local elections for the governing party. The results of the UK-wide European elections will be declared on Sunday night.