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Who would replace Gordon Brown?

As the UK prime minister self destructs, Labour could face a leadership upheaval.

Pedestrians pass a large television screen showing a news story about Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London on April 28, 2010. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

LONDON, United Kingdom — Of all the obstacles to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s efforts to get his Labour Party re-elected next month, the biggest emerged with emphatic certainty this week: Brown himself.

And as Labour faces the increasing likelihood it will need to form a coalition to stay in power, Brown’s spectacular ability to self-sabotage could leave him facing the ultimate ignominy of being sacked by his own party — a scenario that could thrust a relative unknown into the top job.

The prospect of jettisoning the beleaguered Scotsman was raised even before Brown landed yet another blow on himself with a televised gaffe that even his detractors would have found hard not to watch without burying their heads in their hands.

It nearly went fine. Out on the campaign trail in northwestern England, Brown was buttonholed by Gillian Duffy, a retired widow who took him to task over policies including immigration — an election hot potato that has caused many of left-leaning Labour’s core voters to defect to the right.

Ending in smiles and handshakes, the exchange could have been a minor victory for Brown until, forgetting he was still wired to a television radio microphone, he climbed into his car and called Duffy “bigoted.” The quote, taped by Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky TV, was broadcast repeatedly.

It got worse. Sky played the quote back to Duffy, who renounced her lifelong support for Labour, then Brown was confronted with the recording during a radio interview and was filmed cringing, head in hand like everyone else, while offering hasty apologies.

What is unclear is whether it was Brown’s idea or that of his spin doctors to then visit Duffy’s home and spend an hour of what, for a prime minister still ostensibly running a powerful country, must be extremely valuable time groveling before publicly declaring himself a “penitent sinner.”

Whoever called the shots was pulling the Labour leader away from the equally pressing task of preparing for the last of three live televised leadership debates, the previous two of which have done little to enhance Brown’s popularity.