The Take

Britain's Gordon Brown struggles in asking for voter trust on economy

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; 2:53 PM

LONDON -- For 10 of the 13 years that Labor has held power here, Gordon Brown steered the British economy through mostly good times in his position as chancellor of the exchequer. Then, Prime Minister Tony Blair ceded authority to him, and Brown wielded his power with great confidence.

It was therefore fitting that the final debate in the British election campaign came down to an argument between Brown, now prime minister, and Conservative Party leader David Cameron on who should be trusted with power at a moment when the British economy is in a fragile state of recovery and facing enormous future problems.

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who has made this election a three-way fight, was in the middle of the argument, as well. But as the head of the smallest of the three major parties, it's unlikely he will be the next prime minister. The real choice for voters here in the final week of the campaign is whether to stick with the unpopular but experienced Brown or take a chance on the appealing but young and untested Cameron.

The totality of Brown's final argument to British voters Thursday night was an appeal for trust on the economy. Alluding to his embarrassing gaffe of Wednesday, when he called a Labor voter a "bigoted woman," he said in his opening statement, "There's a lot to this job and as you saw yesterday I don't always get it all right. But I do know how to run the economy."

Cameron's argument, delivered in an opening statement minutes before Brown's, was to undercut Brown's supposed prowess. "Our economy is stuck in a rut and we need change to get it moving," he said.

All the time the British economy was steaming ahead during much of the past decade, Brown drew plaudits for his economic mastery. But in the time since he became prime minister three years ago, and particularly since the crash of 2008, his economic stewardship has been seen through a revisionist lens.

There may be little Brown could have done to head off the financial and economic crisis that engulfed all the world's major economies at the end of 2008. And his response to the crash -- particularly in helping guide other world leaders to collective action -- seemed, for a time at least, to underscore the value of his experience to the voters.

But Brown's record as chancellor is now being reexamined for actions he took that have left Britain with a huge deficit, rivaling that of Greece. Put simply, Brown's free-spending ways helped create today's problem. The question dogging him in the campaign is whether he has the stuff to make the hard decisions necessary to get Britain's finance under control.

As the Economist magazine put it, "A prime minister should not get too much credit for climbing out of a hole he himself dug as chancellor."

Brown's argument for keeping his job was less that he should be trusted and more a warning that Cameron and the Conservatives have a plan for fiscal austerity that would wreck the economy just as it is coming out of the recession. "David, you've got it wrong economically," he said at one point in the debate.

Brown speaks with measured authority on the economy, full of facts and figures and the wealth of experience he brings to the issue. But there was a tone of desperation in his voice throughout the 90-minute debate as he tried repeatedly to cast Cameron as another Tory leader with a plan for fiscal pain and suffering. The country, he argued, risks a double-dip recession if Cameron is given control over the government.

Cameron's position in the debate was somewhat similar to that of President Obama during the 2008 campaign. In Obama's case, the issue was whether he was strong enough to be commander in chief in a dangerous world of terrorism and nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea. Cameron's test was to fill out the profile of a prime minister capable of dealing with an economy in recovery and a government that has spent far beyond its means.

Cameron's first goal was to demolish the argument that Brown has the superior credentials on the economy. "To talk about this as if somehow he's got a magnificent economic record is nonsense," Cameron said of Brown.

Throughout the debate, he sought to project confidence, compassion and just enough detail to convince voters that they can put their futures in his hands. On that score he appeared to succeed. Instant polls gave Cameron the victory Thursday night, with Clegg next and Brown in third place.

Instant polls, however, are only a snapshot of those who actually watched the debate. More important is whether the country as a whole will come to that same conclusion when polling stations open next Thursday.

The overall polls continue to show a close three-way vote, which points to a hung parliament and jockeying and negotiation over how to form a new government. It is still possible that Labor could run third in the popular vote but emerge with the most seats, an awkward outcome but one that might prompt Brown to try to hang onto power and seek to put together a coalition government.

But the Conservatives remain ahead in the polls. After the final debate, it appears Cameron is the most likely of the three candidates to have the first chance to put that government together--and to deal with the consequences that come with it.

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