By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
LONDON, Oct. 13 -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown, given up in Britain as political flotsam just weeks ago, has emerged from the global financial crisis as a leader whose ideas are influencing policy from Europe to Washington.
"He's the cat who got the cream," said Anthony Seldon, a British historian and author. "There is hardly a world leader who has a more profound mastery of economics. It was a gift from heaven for him to have this crisis in his field of expertise."
Last week Brown announced that Britain would inject tens of billions of pounds of capital into troubled British banks in exchange for shares -- taking an ownership stake -- as well as put up hundreds of billions of pounds to guarantee the banks' loans.
Just days later -- lightning speed for such things -- that approach has become a guiding philosophy for European leaders and for U.S. officials implementing the $700 billion bank bailout. On Monday, Germany announced a plan that closely resembles the British model.
"A month ago, Brown was a Brit, now he's a European leader," said Karel Lannoo, chief executive of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. Brown was "the first one to have a big plan, a plan that wasn't piecemeal," he said, and other European countries are now trying to catch up.
While no one argues that Brown alone is driving global policy, his 10 years as Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, give him more experience with the world's financial architecture than almost any other world leader.
President Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, have concentrated on selling bailout plans to their uncertain publics. But Brown has been deeply involved in crafting Britain's bank-rescue scheme, down to the details, along with the current chancellor, Alistair Darling.
"Brown's financial expertise has certainly helped his credibility, and that gives his voice extra weight," said Sarah Seeger, a Europe analyst at the Center for Applied Policy Research at the University of Munich in Germany.
Brown's standing with his European peers was in evidence Sunday in Paris, where he was invited to attend an emergency summit of leaders of the 15 countries that use the euro as their currency. European officials said Brown's presence added to the sense of unity and authority at the meeting, where leaders agreed to a series of spending and bank- loan guarantees along the lines of the British model.
In France, Christian de Boissieu, chairman of Prime Minister François Fillon's Economic Analysis Council, said that Brown's idea of government guarantees of loans between banks was new but that European governments had already been discussing injections of capital for failing banks.
Neil Mackinnon, an economist and former British Treasury official, said Brown's plan had "provided a template to other countries around Europe where other politicians have been in denial" about the extent of the financial crisis.
Critics have pointed out that Brown presided over the British economy for a decade, until summer 2007, a period when many of the risky bank practices that led to the economic crisis developed.
Politically, the financial crisis has begun to restore Brown's approval ratings, which had fallen into the teens in recent months as his leadership was widely panned as lackluster and unfocused.
A YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times newspaper showed that 31 percent of respondents said Brown was doing "fairly well" or "very well." While 65 percent still said Brown was doing "fairly badly" or "very badly," the poll showed a marked improvement in the public view of the prime minister.
The poll also showed that Brown's Labor Party was just 10 points behind the rival Conservative Party in voting intentions -- almost halved from the 19-point deficit a month earlier.
Several Britons interviewed on the streets of London on Monday said they were proud of Brown's growing global stature.
"I'm honored as an Englishman that Brown is representing the U.K. in the right way," said Amar Malik, 31, who works in an import-export business. "He has stood up, he has the right voice."
Angela Fritz, 62, a retired BBC producer, said she was "delighted with Brown's authoritative assessment of the global economy. It's terrific to see Britain step up to the plate."
But Seldon, the historian, predicted that Brown's rising popularity will not last for long.
"It will fade away," he said. "It will not have a heavy, long-term impact. The crisis will pass and the underlying trend lines will come back into play. People will remember that they are tired of him."
Correspondent Edward Cody in Paris and special correspondents Karla Adam in London and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.