Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Unsinkable Gordon Brown?

How Britain's detested prime minister just might eke out an improbable electoral victory.

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Just 28 percent of British voters think Gordon Brown has the necessary character to be an effective prime minister, according to an opinion poll published this week. Sixty percent of respondents say he does not. The most amazing thing about it? That was the best poll Brown and his ruling Labour Party have seen in 18 months.

Indeed, the poll put Labour just two points behind David Cameron's Conservatives and within theoretical reach of a historic fourth term. Just three months ago, such a prospect seemed laughably implausible. Brown -- uncharismatic, dour, hapless, and unpopular -- had spent last fall fighting off an attempted coup launched by members of his own cabinet, while the Tories bathed in the comfort of a double-digit lead in the polls.

Rumors of Brown's demise seem to have been premature. One columnist compared his powers of survival to Rasputin this week, and the Conservatives now appreciate that killing off Brown may require more cunning, determination, and luck than they had once thought might be required. An election that was once considered in the bag is now very much not a sure thing -- despite the fact that even some of Brown's own ministerial colleagues concede they can scarcely bear "the idea of another five years of Gordon."

Just 28 percent of British voters think Gordon Brown has the necessary character to be an effective prime minister, according to an opinion poll published this week. Sixty percent of respondents say he does not. The most amazing thing about it? That was the best poll Brown and his ruling Labour Party have seen in 18 months.

Indeed, the poll put Labour just two points behind David Cameron’s Conservatives and within theoretical reach of a historic fourth term. Just three months ago, such a prospect seemed laughably implausible. Brown — uncharismatic, dour, hapless, and unpopular — had spent last fall fighting off an attempted coup launched by members of his own cabinet, while the Tories bathed in the comfort of a double-digit lead in the polls.

Rumors of Brown’s demise seem to have been premature. One columnist compared his powers of survival to Rasputin this week, and the Conservatives now appreciate that killing off Brown may require more cunning, determination, and luck than they had once thought might be required. An election that was once considered in the bag is now very much not a sure thing — despite the fact that even some of Brown’s own ministerial colleagues concede they can scarcely bear "the idea of another five years of Gordon."

The poll, which put the Conservatives at 37 percent and Labour at 35, was significant for two reasons. First, it showed the Tories struggling to reach an important 40 percent barrier. Second, it placed Labour right on the 35 percent mark that party strategists concede is the bare minimum required for the government to deny the Conservatives victory. It lifted Labour spirits as surely as it furrowed Tory brows.

That is because the Conservatives need a six- or seven-point victory to win a narrow overall majority of seats in the House of Commons. (In Britain, a party with a majority of parliamentary seats runs the government. If no party holds an outright majority, it is a hung parliament. The party with the largest plurality forms a government, unless the minority party can form a bigger coalition.) This popular-vote onus is on the Conservatives due to Britain’s outdated constituencies, which do not account for recent population shifts and are due to be redrawn during the next parliament. Psephologists agree that a five-point Tory win would still leave Labour the largest party — even if 20 or more seats short of a majority — in the most astonishing electoral result in decades.

Thus, with echoes of George W. Bush in 2000, Brown might lose the popular vote and regain the prime ministry. But what accounts for his extraordinary resilience in the face of setbacks and opprobrium anyway? It’s certainly not the economy. Brown — who once boasted that he had put an end to the cycle of "boom and bust" as chancellor of the Exchequer — has presided over the biggest, most spectacular crash in 60 years. Britain’s budget deficit is forecast to reach $275 billion this year, or 13 percent of GDP. A period of painful fiscal retrenchment is inevitable, regardless of which party wins the election.

Nor is it because the electorate likes the prime minister. Revelations from a new behind-the-scenes account of Labour’s second and third terms have painted a picture of a prime minister raging against enemies real and imagined, a prime minister who bullies his junior staff, a prime minister with the people skills of a foul-mouthed tabloid editor. Even Alistair Darling, Brown’s chancellor, has complained about him. He reportedly said Brown unleashed "the forces of hell" on him when he had the temerity to suggest that the recession would be longer and deeper than thought. The overwhelming impression coming out of Downing Street is of a government riven by conflict and discord.

Yet, somehow, the more punishment Brown soaks up, the more dogged he becomes; the more generally unpopular he is, the more sympathetic he seems to Labour supporters. An idiosyncratic British support for the underdog at least helps explain Brown’s resilience, just as a similar feeling helped John Major win a come-from-behind victory in 1992. There may also be a sense that tough times require a tough leader. Certainly the accusations of bullying have done little to undermine Brown.

If elections are in effect a referendum in which voters are asked if they’re a) happy with the present government and b) if not, ready to endorse the opposition then, at present, the British public seems inclined to answer both questions in the negative. This explains the poll numbers and has raised the specter of a hung parliament. Such an outcome is unlikely to soothe the already jittery bond markets, or give the country the leadership — any leadership, really — it needs.

Anticipating this possibility, Brown has promised a referendum on ditching Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system and replacing it with the alternative vote — a blatant attempt to persuade the Liberal Democrats to shore up a minority Labour administration. Whether the public would accept such an outcome remains a matter of some doubt. However it is a card Brown might play should the election end in stalemate.

Despite a move toward Labour in the betting markets, the odds remain that it won’t come to that. Cameron’s campaign has not enjoyed the smoothest of starts, but the Tories trust that when push comes to shove voters simply won’t be able to stomach the thought of another five years of Prime Minister Brown. "Vote for Change" is the Tory slogan — a simple, if empty, promise that doesn’t risk making any pledges. And there’s the rub: Cameron beats Brown in the head-to-head matchup, even if he has yet to seal the deal, mostly because much of the long-memoried "Middle Britain" still despises the Tories. Cameron’s "decontamination" project has enjoyed many successes, but it is not yet complete.

The election must be held before June, and the most likely date for the only poll that counts is May 6. There will, for the first time, be three televised leaders’ debates. No one can predict with any confidence what impact, if any, these will have on the campaign. What does seem likely is that Brown will benefit from reduced expectations. That in turn increases the pressure on Cameron to show that he isn’t merely a better choice than Brown, but that he cuts the mustard as a substantial, prime ministerial figure in his own right.

During the great financial crash of 2008, Brown sneered, "this is no time for a novice." That will remain a key Labour theme. Brown asks voters to "take a second look" at Labour and "a long, hard look" at the Conservatives. If this concedes that voters have looked at Labour before and not liked what they’ve seen, then so be it. This isn’t where Labour would like to start a campaign — not with Browns’ abysmal approval rating — but needs must and desperate times demand desperate measures.

Brown spent a decade plotting to unseat his (former) friend and rival Tony Blair. Having finally succeeded in 2007, he’s not prepared to give up without a fight. Like Rasputin, it will take more than one more blow to finish him off.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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