Unpopular British prime minister saves job with U.S. political tactic


LONDON — He is the son of a Scottish minister, a serious man who is as dour as his predecessor Tony Blair was gregarious. But only 15 months after taking charge, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is fighting for his political life — with a chorus of critics calling for him to resign.

Thanks in part to the growing international financial crisis, and a well-photographed onstage kiss from his wife, Sarah, at the Labour Party conference Tuesday — he pulled back from the brink of disaster, at least for the moment.

What made the Browns' embrace in front of the party gathering so unusual in a country known for its repressed emotions was not only its originality — it was the first time a spouse had ever introduced a British leader at a national conference — but also the plight of the kissee. As the Daily Mail said in a headline, the popular Sarah Brown's introduction before his speech to the conference on Tuesday "made Gordon at last seem normal." Commentators saw Sarah Brown's appearance and kiss, which was splashed in the press, as a campaign tactic borrowed from America's political conventions.

Brown, who previously had served for 10 years as Britain's top financial official, was ironically also helped by the financial crisis. During his time as chancellor of the exchequer in Blair's government, London was transformed into a global financial center rivaling New York. Leading investment banks, hedge funds and private equity firms from around the world were attracted by a system governed by what many call "light-touch regulation" — Brown prefers the term "risk-based regulation" — that involved fewer specific rules than financial firms face in America. Critics say this makes him partly responsible for the risky behavior of those firms, saying he has had years to clamp down on them.

In his conference speech Tuesday, though, Brown said the current financial crisis required an experienced pair of hands and collaboration with international partners. "This is not a time for a novice," the prime minister. The swipe appeared aimed both at his Conservative opponent, David Cameron, but also younger Labour officials such as the foreign secretary, David Miliband, who are eyeing Brown's job.

Brown's combination of unexpected passion and undoubted competence in financial matters appears to have fended off critics who sought his immediate resignation, and the prime minister flew to New York on Wednesday to belatedly join other world leaders at a big United Nations conference.

But with a general election required by law in Britain before 2010, the question is how long the reprieve will last. Many Labour insiders say the government continues to founder under Brown, and some party officials have said they will give him only a few more months, until next summer at most, to turn around Labour's fortunes. National polls have consistently shown that the opposition Conservatives would soundly trounce Labour if a general election were held now.

Personality aside, unpopular policy positions have contributed to Brown's recent woes. These included a proposal to revise tax policy in a way that would hurt some of the poor, and his attempt to extend the term during which police might hold suspected terrorist plotters without formal charges to 42 days, far longer than is allowed in most developed countries. More recently, with a mortgage crisis rippling across Britain and home prices falling, he unveiled much-touted plans to help homebuyers that fell flat with much of the public.

As Brown's problems have mounted, Labour's popularity has fallen across the country. In recent months the ruling party has lost several important elections to fill open parliamentary seats.

Speaking to his party this week, Brown emphasized the need for "fairness" in Britain. He proposed free drugs for cancer patients, free nursery-school for young children, and a pledge to eventually eliminate charges for drug purchases by people with long-term illnesses.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent)