LONDON – British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced down critics in his own ranks Monday, vowing to improve his performance after his ruling Labour Party suffered its worst electoral results in a century and more ministers quit his government.
Brown acknowledged failings in a 90-minute meeting with several hundred Labour lawmakers from both houses of Parliament — and appeared to have won support from all but his most strident critics.
After more than a dozen resignations from his government over the last week and his party's failure in elections to local councils and the European Parliament, Brown had faced loud calls to quit from a group of dissident Labour lawmakers.
But legislators who crowded into a wood-paneled Parliament committee room clapped loudly as Brown arrived to address the private meeting, and offered round after round of applause as he vowed not to resign.
"I have my strengths and I have my weaknesses. I know I need to improve. There are some things I can do well, some things I do not so well. I've learned that you've got to keep learning all the time," Brown told the meeting, according to a text supplied by his office.
The rebels needed the backing of 71 of Labour's 350 lawmakers for a particular challenger to trigger a leadership contest, and even though there was no formal vote at the meeting, that figure now appears out of reach for the mutineers.
Repeated cheers and the stamping of feet could be heard from the meeting, which was held behind closed doors. "There was a massive show of unity," Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw said. "He made the speech of his life."
It leaves Brown almost certain to survive calls for his ouster, and means he will likely lead the party into a national election which must be held by June 2010.
"I think the plot is dead and buried and let's move on," Labour lawmaker Geraldine Smith said.
Brown's Labour finished third in Britain in voting for representatives to the European Parliament, behind the main opposition party Conservatives and the U.K. Independence Party, an anti-European Union fringe group. The results, announced Sunday, were Labour's worst in a nationwide vote since 1910 — showing the damage wreaked by a scandal over lawmakers' excessive expense claims.
Local results in simultaneous elections for district and city hall assemblies wiped out Brown's party in parts of southern and central England, regions that helped former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair win three successive victories.
Brown tried to pre-empt the bad news with a hasty reconfiguration of his Cabinet last week — promoting loyalists and handing high-profile jobs to his likeliest successors. He pledged to refocus his legislative program on reviving the economy and cleaning up Britain's political system.
By law, Brown must call a national election by June 2010 — ending Labour's 5-year term won in 2005. His party's drubbing at the polls this weekend has been read by most as a portent of catastrophic defeat. Britain's Conservatives are seen as virtually assured of returning to power for the first time since 1997.
A projection for the Sunday Times newspaper based on local election results suggested the Conservatives would win power with a majority of 34. Labour, which currently has a 63 seat majority, would lose about 140 seats — 40 percent of its total of 350 — according to the analysis.
Olympics minister Tessa Jowell said Brown plans to call an election in May 2010 — almost the last possible moment — hoping that an upturn in the economy will revive his political fortunes. "Labour cannot win with the present prime minister," Labour lawmaker Frank Field wrote on his Web site Monday.
At least two legislators called on Brown directly to quit during the meeting Monday, but won little backing from colleagues, lawmakers said. In a separate meeting at Parliament, ex-Transport Secretary Stephen Byers said Brown was too timid to lead Labour's recovery from the election defeats. "Now is the time for Gordon Brown to stand down," Byers said.
Tom Harris, a junior transport minister, and Jane Kennedy, a junior environment minister, both quit their government jobs Monday in protest at Brown's leadership.
Some observers said the appalling election results for Labour — the party won just 15 percent of the vote in the European parliamentary elections — have made it more likely Brown can cling to his job. They calculate no party stalwart would want to win leadership of a party which appears doomed to defeat at the next election.
Changing leaders — and thus prime ministers — would increase pressure to call an immediate national election, because the new leader would be Britain's second consecutive unelected prime minister. Brown himself was selected by the party to replace Blair in 2007.