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Britain's Brown Battles for Political Survival as Scandal Thins Cabinet Ranks

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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 4, 2009

LONDON, June 3 -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced a political nightmare Wednesday with the resignation of his fourth government minister in two days on the eve of local and European elections in which his Labor Party appeared headed for what could be its worst defeat in history.

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Political analysts said Brown's predicament is so severe that he could be forced out, after months of anemic popularity ratings and more recently a scandal over lawmaker expenses that has reached the highest levels of his cabinet.

"We're in an unpredictable, muddled, confused world, and no one knows what will happen in the next 48 hours," said Peter Riddell, a political columnist and author of several books about British politics.

Brown has rejected suggestions that he might quit, and most analysts agreed that he would be viscerally opposed to stepping aside after waiting nearly a decade to take over from Tony Blair. If Brown left now, after less than two years in office, he would be one of the shortest-serving British leaders in modern history.

"These are Gordon Brown's darkest and most challenging days," said Tony Travers, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "But he is resilient and tough, and he's still more likely to stay than to go."

Brown's popularity among British voters has been steadily declining for months because of a widespread perception of disarray and lack of direction in his government.

Britain's rising unemployment and other severe economic woes have added to Brown's problems. But his low approval ratings have been tempered somewhat by what most have viewed as his strong leadership, in Britain and internationally, on the global financial crisis.

Public anger and disillusionment with Brown reached new peaks with the expenses scandal.

Much of the scandal has centered on legislators' expenses related to second homes, but other notable expenses have included a Conservative Party member who charged taxpayers for the cleaning of the moat around his country home and a Labor lawmaker who sought government reimbursement for 5 pounds (about $8.25) he placed in a church offertory.

"I think the word scandal is almost demeaning; it's much larger than that," said Julia Clark, head of political research at Ipsos MORI, a survey research organization, whose polling shows that 75 percent of Britons do not trust politicians to tell the truth.

Brown's handling of the scandal, which has ensnared lawmakers from all parties, has been widely criticized as slow and tepid.

Brown "has never gotten over the label that he is a ditherer, that he doesn't take action quickly enough," said Nicola McEwen, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh.


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