London: Two former British cabinet ministers on Wednesday called for a secret ballot of MPs to decide if Prime Minister Gordon Brown should lead the Labour Party into an election due by June.
The move brought to a head long-simmering discontent over Brown`s leadership ahead of an election which the opposition Conservatives are expected to win. It sent sterling to a session low against the euro.
However, the timing was a surprise as many commentators feel it is too late to replace Brown before the election and Labour had started to claw back some ground on the Conservatives in recent opinion polls. There is no obvious successor to Brown.
"Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this (leadership) question is affecting our political performance," Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt said in a letter to Labour members of parliament.
"We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot," they added.
Hoon is a former defense secretary and Hewitt has been trade secretary. However, Hewitt was planning to stand down at the next election and it is not clear how much support the pair would command among Labour MPs beyond those who have long been critical of Brown.
Brown served as finance minister for a decade under Tony Blair before replacing him mid-term in 2007.
Brown`s critics say he lacks charisma and his ratings have suffered during a deep recession and increasingly bloody campaign in Afghanistan.
"It`s difficult at this stage to get your head around a challenge to Brown given the headwinds (the party) is going to face against the Conservatives," said Chris Turner, currency strategist, at ING in London.
"If opinion polls show that a change of leadership would increase the Labour vote, then a hung parliament may be more likely, and that would be negative for sterling," he added.