- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

LONDON | One more British Cabinet minister announced she was resigning Wednesday as a scandal over officials’ expenses snowballed, posing the most serious challenge to the leadership of Prime Minister Gordon Brown since he took office in 2007.

Four ministers have quit his government in two days, pre-empting Mr. Brown’s planned shake-up of his ministerial team and creating the image of a government in chaos.

The ministers’ decision to abandon Mr. Brown just as British voters go to the polls in European and local elections Thursday has been seen by many as an attempt to drive him from office. Many legislators believe the Labor Party can only revive its fortunes under a new leader.

Labor Party lawmaker Barry Sheerman said Mr. Brown must act urgently if he is to stem the tide of dissent.

“If the prime minister doesn’t realize that, across the party, there is a disillusionment with the way the parliamentary party has been consulted, treated and valued, he is heading for trouble,” he said.

Even the left-leaning Guardian newspaper - traditionally a supporter of Labor - said Mr. Brown’s time was over, calling in an editorial for him to be “cut loose.”

Public anger has been fueled by revelations that lawmakers expensed items ranging from cookies and cushions to horse manure, swimming pool repairs and bogus home loan payments.

About 15 lawmakers, including members of Mr. Brown’s Labor Party and the Conservatives, have said they won’t run for re-election. And analysts say hundreds of lawmakers - perhaps half those in the House of Commons, which has 646 members - could be ousted in the next national election, which Mr. Brown is obliged by law to call by June 2010.

The latest minister to leave Mr. Brown’s Cabinet is Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who has faced sharp criticism over her expense claims. She announced Wednesday she would quit her post, and suggested Mr. Brown’s government had lost touch with voters.

Mrs. Blears has been criticized for making tens of thousands of dollars tax-free by selling a home she was using public money to maintain. She has repaid $21,500. Mr. Brown had described her actions as unacceptable, and he had been expected to fire her in a Cabinet shake-up Friday or early next week.

Her resignation follows the decisions Tuesday of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and two junior ministers - Beverley Hughes, a junior schools minister, and Tom Watson, a minister and longtime aide to Mr. Brown - to quit their government posts.

The futures of Treasury chief Alistair Darling and Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon are also in doubt.

Mrs. Smith - who mistakenly expensed two pornographic movies - and Ms. Blears were expected to be axed, but the resignations have dented Mr. Brown’s authority and denied him the chance to fire the miscreant ministers.

The Guardian reported that a group of rank-and-file Labor lawmakers were preparing to ask colleagues to back an e-mail petition calling on Mr. Brown to step down.

Health Secretary Alan Johnson, a slick and popular lawmaker known for his rise from poverty to politics, is regarded as a favorite to replace Mr. Brown.

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