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Gordon Brown’s Blues

4 minute read

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” During the long, bitter years when Gordon Brown hungered for the top job in British politics, he’d never have agreed with this sentiment framed by a fellow Scot, 19th century author Robert Louis Stevenson. After Brown finally collected the keys to 10 Downing Street on June 27, his first three months in office exceeded expectations — his and his country’s. Many Britons, even those who rejoiced at Tony Blair’s exit, had worried that their brainy, brawny Chancellor of the Exchequer was too complex and introspective to make an effective Prime Minister. Instead, the contrast between Brown and his quicksilver predecessor helped to win over skeptics. Yes, the new Premier was dull by comparison, but reassuringly so.

Competence — that was Prime Minister Brown’s unique selling point. He reacted calmly to the June terror attacks in London and Glasgow, and to the August outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, followed a month later by the bluetongue virus afflicting livestock. He cheered many in his own party by signaling a new distance from the Bush Administration, while reaffirming his Atlanticist credentials. By the time he delivered a workmanlike speech to Labour’s annual congress in September, doubts about his abilities had been assuaged.

But since then, Brown has very likely come to know what Stevenson was driving at. Under the headline calamity brown, a Nov. 26 cover story in the political journal New Statesman, previously regarded in Westminster as Brown’s cheerleader, marked the Prime Minister’s astonishing plunge from grace. Pollsters have tracked that vertiginous descent. In opinion polls, Labour led the opposition Conservatives by some eight percentage points in September; two recent surveys show David Cameron’s revitalized party ahead by 11 points, the most substantial lead it has enjoyed over Labour since Margaret Thatcher was in power. Brown’s government has been buffeted by a series of mishaps and blunders since the run two months ago on Northern Rock, Britain’s fifth-largest mortgage lender, which is now sustained by emergency funding from the Bank of England. A government department lost two discs containing the financial details of 25 million U.K. residents. A burgeoning scandal over fund raising has forced Labour’s General Secretary, Peter Watt, to resign, and threatens to engulf other leading Labour figures. Police are investigating donations to the Labour Party from businessman David Abrahams that Brown himself told a Nov. 27 press conference were “not lawfully declared.”

Now Brown risks emulating his predecessor in a way he could never have wished. In 2006, Blair became the first serving Prime Minister to be questioned by police. They were investigating allegations that honors such as peerages had been proffered in exchange for loans to Labour. Brown has already promised the police full cooperation in their current inquiry.

Labour needs money. Income from dues has tailed off as membership has fallen from a modern peak of more than 400,000 in 1997 to 177,000 last year. Its debts stand at $54 million. Plans for a snap election, conceived during Brown’s brief honeymoon to capitalize on his popularity, added urgency to fund-raising efforts, but were abandoned as Labour’s ratings plunged. The fallout damaged Brown badly. “The root of our problems is the dithering over whether to hold an election,” says a former government adviser. “Politics can be shaped by a collective mood which shifts. You suddenly had a confident Tory leader against a Labour leader who ran scared.”

Brown is straining to shift the collective mood back in his favor, promising better cancer care for Britons and even attempting to turn around his party-funding embarrassment by proposing a fresh look at the rules that govern it. His own supporters are gloomy, recalling another Prime Minister who inherited the remains of an electoral term from his predecessor. “The danger for Brown is that this will start to be like [John] Major’s government, buffeted by things happening to it, in permanent reactive mode, trying to micromanage each response to each incident, occasionally relaunching, and never really able to get back on to its own agenda,” says a Labour insider.

Time, at least, seems to be on Brown’s side. Parliament’s seasonal recess from Dec. 18 to Jan. 7 should give him a little breathing space. (Asked during his weekly grilling by MPs what he’d like for Christmas, Brown sighed: “I might have one day off.”) He doesn’t have to hold elections until 2010. But by then, he may be forced to fathom another observation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.”

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