Insights from the UK and beyond
Brown fights fires at home while on U.S. trip
For Gordon Brown on his U.S. trip it has been a case of when the cat is away the mice will play. While Brown was at the White House working to shore up the “special relationship” with President George W. Bush, rebellion broke out in Labour ranks at home.
First, Labour peer Lord Desai launched an extraordinary attack on Brown, telling the Evening Standard: “Gordon Brown was put on earth to remind people how good Tony Blair was.”
Then it emerged that a junior member of Brown’s government, Angela Smith, was threatening to resign over Brown’s abolition of the 10 pence tax rate — a move that many Labour MPs fear will hit the low-paid and hurt Labour in May 1 local elections.
Smith’s on-off resignation was played out in real time on the 24-hour news channels. And just as Brown was about to give a news conference with Bush at the White House, news that Smith had told colleagues she was ready to quit broke.
The threat evidently caused consternation among Brown aides. A resignation of even such a junior minister when Brown was striding the world stage would have been hugely embarrassing.
There was silence from Smith’s office for several hours as, behind the scenes, Brown got on the phone to Smith to persuade her to change her mind. Then Smith issued a statement saying:”Resignation of my post … is not envisaged.”
So have the rumblings of discontent over Brown been blown out of proportion during a quiet news week? Or does it signal that his 10-month-old premiership is in irreversible decline?
When parliament reopens on Monday, Brown faces a revolt among Labour backbenchers over the removal of the 10 pence tax rate and over Brown’s controversial plans to extend the time terrorism suspects may be held from 28 to 42 days.
Brown may be forced to compromise on both issues if he is to avoid a humiliating parliamentary defeat.
More than 60 MPs, many of them Labour, have signed a parliamentary motion urging the government to change the tax system to make sure the low-paid pay less tax.
Brown’s poll numbers are terrible. A Sunday Times poll this week showed the collapse in Brown’s personal popularity ratings was worse even than the drop suffered by Neville Chamberlain after Hitler’s invasion of Norway in 1940.
The Conservatives opened a 16-point gap over Labour in that poll, and worryingly for the government, are now consistently scoring above the 40 percent of the vote mark that could give them a breakthrough at the next general election.
To make matters worse for Brown the credit crunch has tarnished the reputation for economic competence that was his main trump card. A Financial Times poll this week showed Brown was less trusted than any other major western European leader in being able to steer his country through the financial whirlwind.
And Brown can’t seem to buy any luck at the moment. After chafing in Blair’s shadow during a decade of prosperity, the sub-prime crisis broke within months of Brown taking power, bringing down Northern Rock and sowing worries about job losses and falling house prices.
Brown even chose to visit the United States the same week that Pope Benedict was attracting huge crowds there, pushing the little known British leader into the shade.
The slide in their party’s fortunes has unsettled Labour politicians, some of whom are beginning to pine for Blair’s sure touch which won Labour three elections.
Lord Desai said Labour was on track for a “bad result” in the May 1 local elections. If Labour’s Ken Livingstone loses the London mayoral race, “it would be absolutely traumatic for the party,” he said.
Desai was quoted as saying that many senior figures in the party were already thinking about who will succeed Brown. However, most experts dismiss talk of a leadership
challenge any time soon.
Brown can claim some success from his U.S. trip. He appears to have firmed up the initially shaky relationship he struck up with Bush. And he scored an undisputed diplomatic triumph by arranging meetings with all three U.S. presidential candidates.
It was a sign of the importance they place on the U.S. relationship with Britain that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain found space in their busy schedules for strictlyequal, 45-minute meetings with Brown.
Brown must hope he can carry as much weight with his own restive backbenchers.