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Ministers desert the troubled UK Cabinet

BRITISH Prime Minister Gordon Brown attempted yesterday to survive the most serious challenge to his leadership since he took office, as Cabinet ministers deserted his government and a scandal over lawmakers' expenses threatened to force him out of Downing Street.

Four ministers have quit their jobs in two days, pre-empting Brown's planned shake-up of his ministerial team and creating the image of a government in chaos.

Their decision to abandon Brown before British voters go to the polls in European and local elections today is seen by many as an attempt to force the prime minister from office.

Anger has been fueled by revelations that lawmakers expensed items ranging from cookies and cushions to horse manure, swimming pool repairs and bogus home loan payments.

Voters are expected to use the elections to rebuke Britain's three major political parties - but Brown's Labour in particular - by backing minority parties as a protest against legislators' excessive expenses claims.

About 15 lawmakers - including members of Brown's Labour Party and the Conservatives - have said they won't run for re-election. Analysts say hundreds of lawmakers - perhaps half of those in the House of Commons - could be ousted in the next national election, which Brown must call by June 2010.

As Communities Secretary Hazel Blears - who has faced criticism over her allowances claims - announced she was leaving the Cabinet, she suggested Brown's government had become out of touch with British voters.

Blears has been criticized for making tens of thousands of pounds tax-free by selling a home she was using public money to maintain. Brown had been expected to fire her when he shakes up his Cabinet tomorrow or early next week, in an effort to recover.

Her resignation follows the decision on Tuesday of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and two junior ministers - Beverley Hughes, a junior schools minister, and Tom Watson, a minister and longtime aide to Brown - to quit their government posts.


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