Gordon Brown suffered another crippling blow last night when the Blairite Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell resigned from the Government.
The Prime Minister's tenuous grip on power was weakened further when Mr Purnell, one of Labour's rising stars, became the third Cabinet minister to walk out of the Government in as many days. He urged Mr Brown to stand down, saying bluntly that he was leading Labour to an inevitable defeat at the general election.
The dramatic move, timed to coincide with the close of voting in yesterday's local and European elections, will severely undermine Mr Brown's plans to fight back after what are expected to be disastrous results for his party. It could prove a fatal blow to a prime minister already clinging to his job and may be followed by other resignations.
Mr Purnell, a former Blair aide, told Mr Brown in his resignation letter: “I owe it to our party to say what I believe no matter how hard that may be. I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely. That would be disastrous for our country. This moment calls for stronger regulation, an active state, better public services, an open democracy. It calls for a Government that measures itself by how it treats the poorest in society. Those are our values, not David Cameron's.”
Mr Purnell went on: “We therefore owe it to our country to give it a real choice. We need to show that we are prepared to fight to be a credible Government and have the courage to offer an alternative future.
“I am therefore calling on you to stand aside to give our party a fighting chance of winning. As such I am resigning from Government.
“The party was here long before us, and we want it to be here long after we have gone. We must do the right thing by it.”
In another setback for Mr Brown, Barry Sheerman, a senior Labour backbencher, called for a vote of no confidence in Mr Brown among the party's MPs.
Labour rebels plotting Mr Brown's downfall intend to raise the stakes by going public in their demands for him to stand down.
They may hand in a “go now” letter to Downing Street today.
The pressure on Mr Brown is expected to intensify when the results of yesterday's council elections emerge from lunchtime today, with European election results to follow on Sunday.
Downing Street said in a statement that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was “disappointed” by Mr Purnell's resignation but added that he will continue to give his undivided attention to addressing the challenges facing Britain.
Conservative leader David Cameron said the Government was now “falling apart in front of our eyes” and demanded an immediate general election.
And the shadow chancellor George Osborne said Mr Brown should go to Buckingham Palace today for a dissolution of Parliament.