As More Ministers Resign in Britain, Can Brown Survive?

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Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

Britain's Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who quit the Cabinet on June 3, 2009

Revolutions don't always start on the streets. The uprising threatening to unseat British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and oust up to a third of the nation's MPs was sparked in the offices of the Daily Telegraph and its sister title, the Sunday Telegraph, by a team sequestered from the main editorial operations. The air is frankly a bit smelly in their windowless bunker, but that's nothing compared to the stench that has hung over Westminster since the Telegraph began publishing leaked details of MPs' expenses claims 27 days ago.

Revelations that members from across the House of Commons have milked the lax expenses system have angered voters and mobilized party activists. Amid calls for radical reform of Britain's fustian political system, the next Parliament is already guaranteed to have a fresh face, with droves of MPs vowing not to run at the next election and others facing ouster by their parties. One veteran still refuses to budge, even as the calls for his head grow louder. Yet after the resignation of two Cabinet ministers in the past 24 hours, Brown's tenure at 10 Downing Street looks precarious at best. (See the top 10 most outrageous British expense claims.)

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, both once tipped as future Labour leaders, are now heading to the backbenches, the favored perch from which to foment rebellion. Two more ministers have also tendered their resignations. "The government is collapsing before our eyes," said David Cameron, the Conservative leader, renewing his call for an early election. (Read "David Cameron: U.K.'s Next Leader?")

Brown dismissed the suggestion. Labour's term doesn't expire until June 2010. But rumors are swirling that Labour backbenchers are collecting signatures on a petition asking for Brown to step aside. Some opinion polls are suggesting that Labour might even slide into third or fourth place in some parts of the country in Thursday's municipal and European elections. So nobody is taking bets on the Brown government lasting into next year. (See pictures of Brown as he prepared for power.)

It's a perfect storm. All of the mainstream parties have been damaged by the expenses saga, and fringe parties could reap the benefits at the polls. But for Brown, the scandal has unleashed forces in his own party that he may not be able to subdue. After Smith's husband was found to have submitted claims for two pornographic movies, her Cabinet future looked uncertain. Blears, too, has been tarnished by allegations that she failed to pay the capital gains tax on the sale of property she had officially designated as her second home, in order to claim the MPs' second-home allowance on it. The two women could have meekly awaited their fate in the reshuffle long planned to reassert Brown's authority after Thursday's elections. Their decision to jump first suggests that their loyalty to Labour — "I want to help the Labour Party to reconnect with the British people," said Blears in her resignation statement — does not extend to Brown.

The small Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties have teamed up to introduce a motion that will be debated next week demanding immediate elections. They won't prevail. Labour dissidents want to oust Brown well before elections are called. Support has been steadily coalescing around Health Secretary Alan Johnson as his replacement, but there are other contenders too. If Labour performs even worse than expected in Thursday's polls or Brown attempts to dislodge a Cabinet minister who's not prepared to go quietly, a fresh insurrection could be triggered. "I'll be amazed if [Brown] survives this," says a Labour insider. "But I've been amazed before."

See a TIME video with Brown.

Read "Expenses Scandal Only Adds to Brown's Woes."