Britain's Labor, and its leader, slowly rebound in polls as economy picks up

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 6, 2010

LONDON -- Only a few months ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed a figure living out a Shakespearean tragedy. An ill-tempered Caesar surrounded by disloyal aides, an out-of-touch King Lear about to lose his throne. But Brown may not yet be ready to make his curtain call.

In fact, the dour Scotsman is staging an unlikely comeback, with his Labor Party rebounding in opinion polls only weeks ahead of a general election. Depending on the poll, Labor is clawing back from a 20 percentage-point deficit last year to within two to six points of the opposition Conservative Party, led by the eloquent and fresh-faced David Cameron.

Though Labor is still trailing in the polls, the party's defeat after 13 years in power is no longer a foregone conclusion here. And Brown, long seen as far more clumsy and ham-handed than his flashy predecessor, Tony Blair, has recently been garnering rare praise. On Friday, pundits said Brown was more empathetic and politically skilled in answering tough questions before a high-level inquiry on the Iraq war here than Blair was when he appeared before the commission in January.

Yet the biggest reason for the new momentum of the incumbent party in Britain may hearten the Democratic Party in the United States. More than anything else, analysts attribute Labor's recent rebound not to Brown himself but to the nascent economic recovery here.

Like the United States, Britain is helping fuel its recovery with massive public spending. Like many Republicans, Britain's Conservatives have argued that the time has come to rein in that spending. But Brown's argument that reductions at this time would throw the economy back into recession appears to be resonating with voters, even though Labor's fiscal plan differs only modestly from that of the Conservatives. Sensing the national mood, even Cameron has toned down his talk of fiscal restraint in recent weeks.

"The sheer public anger at the recession is reduced, and interestingly, it is the fragility of the recovery that is now helping Brown," said Peter Kellner, president of the YouGov polling firm in London. "People feel less comfortable switching parties when they sense that things are on the mend and could easily drift off course with different policy decisions."

If the Labor Party did manage to squeak out a victory, it would amount to a stunning reversal of fortune for Brown, who took over from Blair in 2007.

Under Britain's parliamentary system, Brown succeeded Blair without a general election. Though initially popular, Brown plunged in public polls along with the British economy and was forced to quell several rebellions within his ranks -- including one as recent as January.

More recently, up against the easy-mannered Cameron, Brown has moved to change his image as a smart but aloof and impersonal politician. In a nation famous for the stiff upper lip, Brown became emotional in a recent TV interview, openly discussing his pain after the death of his infant daughter in 2002. His sudden candor seemed to stun Britain.

"You know, we are a sort of reserved society, we just don't like our politicians blubbering," said Paul Kelly, head of the government department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "But to see a glimpse of humanity from Gordon Brown does benefit him. To see that he does have emotions is a sort of revelation to the public."

Brown must still set a date for the vote, which under British law must be held before the first week in June. And although it may not be enough to carve out a Labor win, the public, at least for now, appears to be giving Brown something it had long been loath to offer -- the benefit of the doubt.

On Friday, Brown was even able to speak openly about what many here saw as a political blunder -- his decision to back an inquiry into Britain's role in the Iraq war -- without doing any apparent damage to his standing.

Though the prime minister had said he was only making good on a Labor promise of an inquiry, some analysts contended that dredging up the circumstances leading to the unpopular war was unnecessarily risky.

On Friday, when he appeared, Brown expressed gratitude to the British troops who lost their lives during the war, and he spoke of lessons learned -- something Blair, seeking to avoid the appearance of anything approaching an apology, did not do when he addressed the commission.

Although Brown criticized U.S. planning for the aftermath of the war, he nevertheless defended Britain's decision to join the 2003 invasion, calling it the "right" thing to do. Nick Robinson, the British Broadcasting Corp.'s political editor, was among those impressed by the prime minister's handling of the inquiry.

Wrote Robinson on the BBC's Web site: "It was like watching a skilful chess player who had a defensive move prepared for every possible attack."

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