Political Rivals Take Aim at Brown as His Political Stature Rises

Britain's Gordon Brown, right, with France's Nicolas Sarkozy, has won praise at home and abroad for his response to the global financial meltdown.
Britain's Gordon Brown, right, with France's Nicolas Sarkozy, has won praise at home and abroad for his response to the global financial meltdown. (By Charles Platiau -- Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 18, 2008

LONDON, Oct. 17 -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been so widely praised for his international leadership on the global financial crisis that a political cartoon here this week showed workers carving his face into Mount Rushmore.

On Friday, it all apparently became too much to bear for Conservative Party leader David Cameron, who broke a two-week political truce with his nemesis in a speech blasting Brown as "the one who created this mess in the first place."

"Gordon Brown is hoping that his whirlwind of summitry will mean that we will forget what has come before," Cameron said, asserting that Brown, in his 10 years as Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, had presided over "a total breakdown of economic responsibility" and policies that "accelerated [and] . . . actively encouraged the risk-taking culture in our banks."

It was a remarkable turnabout for Cameron. Earlier, he had pledged his party's support for Brown's massive bank-rescue plan and suspended his political attacks on the prime minister, whose popularity ratings had sunk into the teens.

Cameron said he still supports the bank-rescue plan. But with Brown's political stock suddenly rising at home and his international stature enhanced since Europe and the United States essentially adopted his bailout plans, Cameron finally struck back in a morning speech in London's financial district.

"Some people think that this decision -- to support recapitalization -- means that we somehow now subscribe to the government's entire economic policy and doctrine. Let me make it crystal clear: We do not," Cameron said before laying out his own proposals to diversify Britain's economy and tighten regulation of the banking industry.

Yvette Cooper, a top Brown financial lieutenant, said Cameron's speech suggested that his earlier pledge of bipartisan cooperation was "just a short-term gimmick to get on the news."

"At a time when the British people want calm leadership and serious policies to get through tougher times, David Cameron is engaged in playing juvenile political games," Cooper said.

Officials from Britain's other main political party, the Liberal Democrats, distanced themselves from the attacks on Brown, which began Wednesday when Conservative Party official William Hague accused Brown of "hubris."

"I think David Cameron's speech was the worst kind of politics," Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told reporters. "This is a man who said he had a plan two weeks ago, yet he's got nothing of real substance to say on the largest economic crisis to hit this country in decades."

Mike Smithson, a Liberal Democrat politician and author who runs a popular Web site called PoliticalBetting.com, said Brown's handling of the financial crisis could have the effect of "changing the political map on Cameron."

Brown, who took office in June 2007, had become extraordinarily unpopular with Britons as questions grew about the strength and direction of his leadership.

A month ago, polls showed Cameron and the Conservatives as 19 points more popular among voters than Brown and the Labor Party. But by last weekend, after the financial crisis hit, Labor had cut the Conservatives' lead to about 10 percent.

Smithson said Cameron cannot be seen as critical of the bank-rescue plan, since that could provoke a public backlash at a time of deep concern about the economy. "But he can't allow himself to be completely blanked out of the news, either," Smithson added. "I think this is all about getting himself a higher profile."

Smithson said Cameron might also be trying to goad Brown into losing his temper, making him look less like a global statesman and more like a British leader struggling with his approval ratings. "I think a lot of the strategy is getting Brown to lose it," Smithson said. "If he can get Brown to have a temper flash, then Cameron's in the game again."

Tim Knox of the Center for Policy Studies, a conservative-leaning research body set up by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, said Conservatives were upset with Cameron for "effectively saying nothing for the past two weeks."

"They must have taken a strategic decision to stay quiet and play the 'we are the responsible opposition' card," he said. "But they took it far too far. . . . A very powerful argument for the Conservatives was that Brown is a ditherer. But that has no resonance now. If anyone has been dithering, it's been Cameron."

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