Earnest Gordon Brown struggles to reach Britons drawn by charm, vows of change

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 and Anthony Faiola
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

LONDON -- It was early Sunday evening, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the leader of the embattled Labor Party, was in the middle of a press scrum after a rally at a pub in north London. Suddenly, he became impatient with the reporters' questions. "You're only interested in the froth," he complained.

To Brown, the froth of an election campaign dominated by the first televised candidate debates in the country's history is the focus on personality and style, rather than on the substance of the policies of the three major parties.

By his own account, Brown is a serious man, an expert on public policy, a deeply read student of American and other history and, for nearly two decades, one of the two dominating figures -- the other being former prime minister Tony Blair -- in modern Labor history. He helped bring the party to power in 1997 and then sustain it through a record three election victories.

But in this campaign, he has run a poor third to the Conservatives' David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats' Nicholas Clegg on the crucial intangibles of who looks most attractive on television, who has a winning persona, who projects change at a time when the British electorate is fed up with politics as usual and tired of the government in power. Only in the last two days has Brown begun to show real energy and passion as a candidate, but the question is whether the change has come too late to make a difference.

The polls suggest the election, to be held Thursday, could produce the first hung Parliament since 1974. Cameron may have the first opportunity to try to form a new government. Some Labor officials remain optimistic that Brown will be able to form the next government, but only in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But there is also the possibility that Labor could run third in the popular vote.

The last two elections that saw a change in government -- 1979, when the Tories came to power, and 1997, when Labor was brought back -- reflected deep dissatisfaction with the policies of the governing party. Experts here say this year is different.

"I do not think the basic recipe that 'New Labor' offered to the British electorate -- social justice, quality public services and economic dynamism -- has lost its appeal," said Tim Bale, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sussex. "I don't think the product is that bad; I think the salesman is the problem."

Voters were reminded of all that last week when Brown described a widowed Labor voter as a "bigoted woman" in what was meant to be a private comment but was picked up by an open microphone. The remark seemed to embody the worst of the criticisms of Brown: his sometimes bullying personality, his impatience with those who disagree with him, his efforts to blame others for his problems.

Over the weekend, a newspaper said Brown likened Clegg dismissively to a television game show host. "I did not, I did not," he insisted when quizzed about the report. "I said this election was not about who was a TV game show host but it was about who was to be the prime minister. I haven't talked about Nick Clegg at all in that way."

Brown frets about the focus on froth while insisting that voters are beginning to look at substance. On that, he says, there is no comparison between Labor and the other parties. The policies of the Conservatives, he warns, will wreck the economy. Those of the Liberal Democrats, he argues, are "just plain silly," as if "written on the back of a napkin" at a dinner party.

Brown's intellect and political prowess cannot be understated. He and Blair took a demoralized party and, after some fierce internal struggles, produced a more modern one capable of winning back public confidence and becoming a governing party. As chancellor of the exchequer, Brown ran economic and domestic policy. Blair, meanwhile, concentrated on foreign policy and, with his more winning personality, presented an appealing face for New Labor to the country, at least until opposition to the Iraq war turned him into a reviled figure.

Brown was regarded as a strong and effective chancellor, but he is an unelected prime minister, and the British public has had its doubts about him since he inherited the job. The English in particular maintain a slight distrust of his Scottish Presbyterian roots and staid, even dour, personality.

"An upbringing like his produced a gloomy, serious and moralistic individual, and with people in England already suspicious of people from Scotland, that hasn't helped," said Wyn Grant, professor of government at the University of Warwick. "Worse for Brown, we are now in days of celebrity politics, when warmth and charm count more."

A complex calculus involving both election returns and Labor Party politics will determine whether Brown survives as prime minister. Even if Labor comes in third in the popular vote, Britain's electoral system could still give the party more seats than either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, putting Brown in a position to bargain for leadership. In short, most analysts, reflecting on his hard-charging personality, do not believe Brown will go gently away.

"His career is his life," said Anthony Seldon, who has written several books about the Labor Party under Blair and is writing a new book about Brown as prime minister. "True, he's now married and has children, but a large part of his brain doesn't register that. This is his life. He's fighting for his life."

If Brown should step aside as head of Labor, several names have been raised as possible temporary replacements. Analysts point to Brown's home secretary, Alan Johnson, or perhaps Harriet Harman, the party's deputy and leader of the House of Commons. Another possibility is David Miliband, Brown's foreign secretary.

All of that makes these difficult days for Brown. "I've been pretty generous with my time," he told his traveling press corps on Sunday night as an aide signaled the end of his availability after barely five minutes. Then, after a few more questions, he offered a parting shot. "What did John F. Kennedy say about the papers? He was reading them more and enjoying them less."

With that he walked away, but his frustrations were not over. Outside, a noisy group of activists from the campaign of the Liberal Democratic candidate in the area had gathered outside the pub. Rather than walk out the front door into the raucous crowd, Brown was forced to leave by a side entrance to escape their wrath.

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