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In Britain, A Desperate Brown Is Hanging On
Premier Burdened By Timing, Events

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 7, 2009

LONDON, June 6 -- Two years ago, Gordon Brown entered 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister and promised, without a smile, to "try my utmost."

The brainy, stone-faced Scot was the perfect tonic for a British public jaded after a decade of his flashy predecessor, Tony Blair. Within a week, Brown's popularity ratings had soared to 77 percent.

Now a battered Brown finds himself desperately clinging to his job, facing a fed-up public, a rebellious party and, if things get much worse, the prospect of being one of the shortest-serving prime ministers in modern British history.

"It is a tragedy. He wanted the job so desperately, and very few people think he's doing it well," said Anthony King, professor of government at the University of Essex. "He lacks friends, he's acquired enemies, and he has very few admirers, even in his own government."

British voters pummeled Labor in elections held Thursday for local councils and Britain's representatives to the European Parliament, giving the opposition Conservative Party victories in British cities and towns they had not controlled in a generation.

A raging expense-abuse scandal involving members of Parliament has reached the top levels of Brown's cabinet, and 11 senior members of his government resigned in three days last week.

By Friday, an exhausted, baggy-eyed Brown stood in front of reporters and endured a humiliating grilling in which he vowed he would not give in to increasing calls for his resignation.

"I will not waver," Brown said. "I will not walk away."

Brown appeared with President Obama on Saturday in France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of D-Day. But at home, a furious debate continued about whether Brown might be forced out, and, if he remains in office, whether he still has the strength to govern effectively.

"It's very bleak," said Nicola McEwen, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh. "The big question now is: Can he hang on to a time of his choosing, or will internal pressure be enough to replace him?"

Brown, 58, is serious, intellectual and deeply conversant in even the most minute policy details. He has been widely praised for his leadership, especially abroad, in the global financial crisis.

But he is also seen as too somber, overly cautious, indecisive and unable to communicate his ideas.

A Burdensome Inheritance

In many ways, Brown has been a victim of bad breaks and bad timing dating back 15 years.

In 1994, Brown and Blair were the driving forces behind "New Labor," a modern, centrist party modeled on the Democratic Party led by Bill Clinton in his successful 1992 presidential campaign.

One of them had to lead the party, and Blair ended up on top with Brown's blessing and, it was widely assumed, a promise to succeed Blair eventually.

Blair led the party to a 1997 victory and remained in office for a full decade, with Brown playing an increasingly impatient supporting role as chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister.

When Brown finally got his chance with Blair's resignation in 2007, he inherited immense political problems. After 10 years in power, and after leading the nation into a war in Iraq that was deeply unpopular with Britons, Labor was faced with voters who were growing weary of the party.

In his first couple of months in office, Brown soared. Commentators tripped over themselves to praise his steady handling of disastrous floods and terrorist attacks on London and Glasgow. Voters liked Brown's low-key style -- he seemed all meat and potatoes after a decade of the dessert tray.

But things changed dramatically in September 2007, during the Labor Party's annual general meeting.

Under Britain's parliamentary system, Brown came to power without being elected by the public. Buoyed by his poll ratings, supporters urged Brown to call an early election.

One was not required until May 2010, but giddy Laborites wanted Brown to win a mandate from voters and bury the Conservatives for years.

Brown let it be known that he was considering it, and excitement built. But in the end, Brown's famous cautious side won out, and he decided not to risk everything after waiting 13 years for the job. Suddenly the steady hand at the tiller looked indecisive and weak.

"Brown will be remembered for dithering over the election," said Derek Scott, a former Blair adviser who wrote a book examining the complex Brown-Blair relationship. "He had the hype built up, called it off, then pretended that he didn't. It sums up the political style of the man."

Increasingly hard economic times compounded the pain of Brown's political wounds. What once seemed like Brown's strongest asset -- his economic credentials -- was suddenly in question. Conservative Party leader David Cameron and others hammered at Brown, saying that in his 10 years as chancellor he had presided over a housing bubble and vast abuse by loosely regulated banks and hedge funds.

By the fall of 2008, when the economic downturn exploded into a crisis that threatened to bring down the global financial system, Brown had already been left for dead by many political analysts. His approval ratings were in the teens.

Then Brown emerged as one of the few world leaders with economic credentials that seemed up to the challenge of the crisis. His financial experience towered over that of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and then President George W. Bush, and Brown reveled in his role as global economic ambassador.

He led the call for an overhaul of the international financial system, and his program of pumping billions in government capital into ailing banks became a model eventually emulated by President Obama and other world leaders. Many now speculate that Brown's next job could be a post involving global financial regulation.

Suddenly Britons were proud of Brown again. His approval ratings rose; he still wasn't wildly popular, but he won back some respect.

Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at Oxford University, said Brown had made "sensible decisions" on the economy and was regarded as a "great leader" in international meetings on the economy.

"His polices are very similar to Obama's, but his failure is in communication," Bogdanor said. "He reads widely and deeply and thinks a great deal, but he can't easily communicate to the masses."

Brown's goodwill has been eroded by rising unemployment and home repossessions, closing businesses and a worried public that places the blame largely at Brown's doorstep.

With Brown wobbling, the Daily Telegraph newspaper obtained a computer disc this spring containing expense claims of all members of Parliament going back five years. The abuses were galling and included charging taxpayers for items from candy bars to bogus mortgage payments.

While Conservative members of Parliament have also been caught up in the scandal, public anger has mostly been directed at Brown, the man in charge.

"Cameron is reacting more quickly and apologized more quickly; he's seen as taking a lead on the issue," said Julia Clark, head of political research at Ipsos MORI, a research firm. "It's adversely affecting Labor more . . . the party in power will take the brunt of this."

More Blair Than Brown

By Friday afternoon, as devastating election results began rolling in, Brown was forced to reshuffle his defecting cabinet.

Several analysts said Brown's fate could be sealed if there are more high-profile resignations, especially by his close political allies.

Analysts said the members of Brown's party plotting against him are concerned about their own seats. Many legislators have concluded that Labor will lose the next general election but that a new leader might improve the party's performance enough to keep them in office.

James Hanning, co-author of "Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative," said Cameron is rooting for Brown, seeing him as the easiest Labor leader to beat in the next election. "The last thing Cameron wants is for Brown to be thrown out right now," he said.

Cameron, 42, is more Blair than Brown, a charismatic young leader who has moved his party to the center from its traditionally conservative positions.

Hanning said that policy differences would be "marginal" but that Cameron, a former media company executive, would be able to sell his programs to the public more easily than Brown does.

"Cameron is very smooth, very polished," Hanning said.

A product of the prestigious Eton school and Oxford University, Cameron took over the Conservatives in December 2005, quoting Gandhi and erecting wind turbines on his roof.

Cameron favors less government and lower taxes than Brown -- who recently announced that Britain's top tax rate would go to 50 percent. While initially supportive of Brown's actions to save British banks, Cameron has been increasingly critical of Brown's billions of pounds in public spending to stimulate the economy.

Analysts said there would be little change in U.S.-British relations under Cameron. While Brown is famous for his close ties to U.S. politics, even using Democratic strategists in his campaigns, Cameron has also sought close relations with Washington.

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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