LONDON - Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced the prospect of a new challenge to his leadership on Monday when support for his ruling Labour Party plunged to its lowest level in a century after European elections.
Compounding Labour's woes, the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament for the first time. The BNP gained the seats in northern England at the expense of Brown's Labour Party, which had been hit hard by a scandal over politicians abusing their expenses.
Brown, who reshuffled his government after six ministers quit last week, will hold what is expected to be a very tense meeting later on Monday with Labour members of parliament, some of whom have urged him to step down for the sake of the party.
It's a very, very bad defeat for us, Brown's deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman told BBC television.
But Brown was resilient and would fight on, she said.
Political commentators said he had a desperate political fight ahead after the disastrous European poll showing. The right-of-center Daily Telegraph newspaper said Brown was on the edge, while The Times declared him out for the count.
The normally supportive Guardian newspaper, which last week also turned against Brown and called on him to step down, said Brown was facing a make or break challenge to his leadership.
Conservative leader David Cameron challenged Brown on Monday to call a national election --- something he does not have to do until mid-June next year.
A general election would be a great cleansing process, Cameron told reporters. It would give the country a fresh start where we so badly need one, with an economy that is in difficulty, with a political system that is in a mess and with a government that is so weak it is just extraordinary.
INVESTORS WARY, Labor FINISHED
The turmoil rattled markets last week, pushing the pound lower. Investors are wary of uncertainty when Britain faces its deepest recession since World War Two and the budget deficit has reached a record 175 billion pounds ($281 billion).
Brown's departure would almost certainly precipitate an early election which the center-right opposition Conservatives are expected to win after 12 years out of power.
But they have yet to flesh out their plans for restoring order to public finances.
With all but a few seats counted, Labour had 15.3 percent, behind the anti-European Union, UK Independence Party on 17.4 percent and more than 13 points behind the Conservatives, who got 28.6 percent. Labour's share of the vote was some seven points down from the European election in 2004.
The performance gave fresh ammunition to Brown's critics in his party after a traumatic week in which one departing minister, James Purnell, called on Brown to step aside and said he was an electoral liability.
Former finance minister Brown has not faced the electorate since he took over as prime minister from Tony Blair in 2007.
If Labour MPs and Gordon Brown don't get the message from these results we are finished, said Labour MP John McDonnell, saying that Labour's share of the vote was its lowest in a nationwide election since 1910. We need a complete change of political direction.
Nick Clegg, leader of Britain's third largest part the Liberal Democrats, said both Brown and his Labour Party had been dealt a fatal blow in the European elections.
There is now a very clear sense ... that Labour is finished, he told Good Morning Television. They are coming to the end of their 12-year dominance in British politics, people are looking for something different and new.
Former Labour minister Charles Falconer called on Sunday for a change at the top to improve Labour's chances in the general election and rebels among Labour members of parliament (MPs) are said to be canvassing support for a plot against Brown.
Critics say Labour lacks a coherent policy agenda and that Brown is indecisive, a poor communicator and appears unable to transfer his confidence on the world economic stage to domestic politics.
Newspapers reported on Monday Brown would delay the planned privatization of Royal Mail and announce an Iraq war inquiry within days. A delay on Royal Mail would help curb Labour divisions after 140 MPs signed a motion opposing the deal.
(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Jon Hemming)