An attempt by Gordon Brown to boost his party's flagging fortunes with a Government reshuffle will not save him from electoral defeat, according to a Cabinet minister sacked from her post.
Margaret Beckett, who lost her job as the housing minister and is now competing to become the next Speaker, said a hung parliament was likely at the next election due to a sharp fall in Labour's support and a surge in favour of the Conservatives.
The former Foreign Secretary also refused to endorse Mr Brown's leadership, saying she had not always agreed with him. "The next parliament could be a hung parliament or close to it," she said. "I have been there. I saw how crucial the role of Speaker can be. Things get very close and very tight. There can be a lot of tension between the parties."
Another senior Cabinet minister hinted that she agreed with recent criticisms that Mr Brown had failed to give key posts to women. Harriet Harman, the equalities minister and Leader of the House, said she "shared the frustrations" of those who believed women had not had an equal role in politics. She said she would not be happy until half the Cabinet were women. Her comments come after Caroline Flint, the former Europe minister who left in the reshuffle, accused Mr Brown of treating female ministers as "window dressing".
A poll published yesterday heaped further misery on the Prime Minister, suggesting his reshuffle had made little impact on his fortunes. The YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found slightly more than half of voters thought Mr Brown's leadership was "damaging the country". The poll gave the Tories a 16-point lead over Labour, with a 40 per cent share of the vote. Both parties lost support as a result of the expenses scandal, with both down three points on last month. The Liberal Democrats remained on 18 per cent.
The reshuffle did not impress backbenchers, some of whom said last night that it would not ward off a renewed attempt to remove Mr Brown as leader in the autumn. "We all know this was not the reshuffle that Mr Brown wanted, meaning that he has some people there who he didn't want," said one last night.
Some are also angry about a recent meeting of Labour MPs, during which Mr Brown was given a round of applause orchestrated by loyalists. "Anyone would have thought we had just won a fourth term," said a former Labour minister yesterday. "The loyalists have won for now, but the group who will never accept Mr Brown's leadership is continuing to grow."
Mr Brown fuelled the spat with the Tories over public spending yesterday, trying to convince voters that the Conservatives would slash public services. He labelled the Tory leader David Cameron "Mr 10 Per Cent" because of spending cuts he would force upon all Government departments except health and foreign aid.
"We now know the Tories want to cut public spending by a savage 10 per cent," he said. "They have finally revealed what their true priorities are: a cuts plan that is wide, deep and immediate, to fund a £200,000 tax cut for the 3,000 richest families."
However, the claim was dismissed as a "child-like deception" by the shadow Business Secretary, Ken Clarke. "Gordon Brown's been pretending we are the party of cuts and he's the party of investment, despite the public figures saying real spending is going down even on Labour's announced plans," he said. Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, called Mr Brown's attack a "very artificial argument".