How Long Can Gordon Brown Last?

Image: Flickr, London Summit
Image: Flickr, London Summit

In 2007, the ten-year prime ministership of the charismatic Tony Blair came to an end, largely as a result of pressure from his Chan­cellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, who had long aspired to the role.

Brown, largely perceived as an uncharismatic politician, was known as an effective Chancellor who managed the nation’s finances successfully dur­ing the boom years, but has since been judged profligate with the public finances. He was unfortunate therefore that the credit crunch that severely affected Britain occurred soon after he moved to No 10 Downing Street. Britain traditionally relies on financial services provided by the City of London to generate a large part of its national income.

When several British banks found them­selves in a situation that could only be saved by their nationalisation, Brown’s government also found itself in serious trouble. Initially it was thought that pre­cisely because he had been Chancellor, he would be able to guide the country through the financial crisis. But the prob­lems were too serious for a quick-fix so­lution, and this perception has largely waned.

A number of signs have emerged which indicate that the Labour Party’s hold on power is slipping. It lost ground heavily in local government elections in June as well as in the elections for British mem­bers of the European Parliament in Stras­bourg. In both cases the party came in a bad third to the Conservatives and the usually marginal Liberal Democrats.

Then the claim scandal.

As if this were not enough, the British MPs expenses scandal then broke. Brit­ish MPs, including two of Brown’s cabinet ministers, were exposed for submitting claims for allowances intended to cover their accommodation in London, to pay for bizarre and quite unacceptable services, such as hiring pornographic movies and having moats in their castles cleared! Several members exposed as guilty of such malpractices announced that they would not stand for re-election in the next general election, but did not resign their seats. The British electorate was out­raged and disillusioned with the behaviour of their political representatives, but they were also very disappointed with the PM’s response. In the midst of these ex­posés, the Prime Minister was faced with yet another revolt against his leadership among members of his party in the House of Commons.

There have been no less than three at­tempts from within his party to remove him as leader and conspiracy and plots among the different party factions have been rife. In addition, several cabinet ministers re­signed, some of them making very critical statements about the Prime Minister, forc­ing him to undertake a major reshuffle of his cabinet.

He was, however, able to quash the revolt and to convince Labour MPs not to demand that he stand down so that a new leader could be elected and installed as Prime Minister without a general election. In the normal course this would only be required to take place by June 2010.

Given the demonstrable unpopularity of Labour with the voters, an earlier elec­tion was likely to lead to a rout with sitting Labour members losing the seats and the Labour government being replaced by the Conservatives. After a long malaise the Conservative Party has found a leader, in the person of David Cameron, who might have the credibility with voters to become the next prime minister.

Life on a knife-edge

In spite of uncontestable evidence that the British public finances are in dire straits, because of the fall in tax collections and the drop in the housing market, Brown has recently launched an optimistic plan for increased public spending that observ­ers claim is unsustainable. Epithets like “denialist” are being used to characterise him. There is little enthusiasm for his ideas and his claims that there will be sufficient funding in the public purse until 2012 to launch a new works programme, are met with derision.

Labour has been in power for twelve con­tinuous years and is perceived as tired and lacking in vision. Trumpeted policies have not been put into place. The government has lost the support of the British electorate, but can also no lon­ger count on the full and enthusiastic sup­port of the civil service, the implementers of policies. Gordon Brown’s premiership is perpetually on a knife-edge.

All that remains to be seen is how long he and his Labour government can survive. Will it be to June 2010 or will it be sooner? Plain lethargy and the unreadiness of the Conservatives to govern may mean that Brown will survive longer than we all expect.

19 Nov 2009