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Political outlook grim for Britain's Gordon Brown

The prime minister's Labor Party is pummeled in elections as Brown's personal popularity dives and government ministers jump ship.

June 09, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — With his Labor Party having gone down in a crushing defeat in local and European elections, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown clung to political survival by his fingernails Monday amid more defections from his government and calls from within his party for him to step down.

An almost palpable sense of gloom and desperation enshrouded Brown's official residence at 10 Downing Street as he and his advisors absorbed disastrous ballot results that showed Labor losing in Wales for the first time in nearly a century, an avowedly racist party winning a seat in the European Parliament, and the opposition Conservatives turning more of Britain's electoral map blue, their traditional color.

Brown, 58, is now politically at his weakest since inheriting the premiership from the charismatic Tony Blair two years ago. Besides his increasing unpopularity with the public, reflected in polls, confidence in Brown is draining fast within the ruling Labor Party, of which he remains head.

On Monday, Brown managed to fight off a brewing mutiny among backbench Labor members of Parliament to dump him as party leader and, in effect, prime minister. With no clear alternative candidate for the rebels to rally around, he was able to persuade Labor lawmakers at a meeting Monday evening to give him and his reshuffled Cabinet a chance to make things work.

But in an indication of the depth of Brown's troubles, one Labor member of Parliament issued an extraordinary open letter explaining to her constituents why she could no longer support her own party leader. Lawmaker Sally Keeble accused Brown of laying out no vision for Britons to embrace and of mismanaging the government.

"Time has really run out," Keeble wrote. "By the next general election, the Labor Party needs to put forward a coherent vision with a credible team."

Although Brown has been behind in polls for months, his authority and standing have fallen so far and so fast within the last few weeks that even some veteran commentators have been taken by surprise.

Continued bad economic news, a shocking government defeat in Parliament over the right of Gurkha soldiers from Nepal who fought in the British army to settle in Britain and, above all, an ongoing scandal over the expense accounts of lawmakers who sought reimbursement for the cost of, among other things, moat-clearing and gardening manure combined to clobber Brown in the eyes of both the public and his fellow Laborites.

With last week's local and European elections looming, government ministers suddenly started jumping ship, some for the ubiquitous "family reasons" but others saying they could no longer work with Brown. Coup plotters circulated a secret online petition among Labor lawmakers to see if they could muster enough support to force a leadership contest. The Guardian newspaper, historically a supporter of Labor, called on Brown to resign.

His expected Cabinet reshuffle had to be moved up by a few days to stanch the hemorrhaging of support. Even then, analysts pointed out that Brown no longer had enough power to put in place some of the personnel changes he most wanted to make.

And Monday, it became clear just how badly Labor fared in Thursday's elections for the European Parliament, the legislative body of the 27-member European Union. The party plummeted to a historic low of less than 16% of the vote, compared with the Conservatives' more than 28%. Labor also failed to win the most popular votes in Wales for the first time since 1918.

To the dismay of many, not just in Labor, fringe parties increased their share of the vote. The anti-Europe UK Independence Party actually outpolled Labor, and the British National Party, which does not allow black members and whose leader campaigned partly against African immigrants "who've got no earthly reason to be in Britain," scored two seats in the European Parliament.

"It was a very, very bad defeat for us," senior government minister Harriet Harman acknowledged in an interview with the BBC.

Harman insisted that Brown was still the right man to be prime minister in economic hard times. Such are Brown's problems, however, that one of the arguments his parliamentary supporters used to convince other Labor lawmakers to keep him in place was that appointing a new prime minister would almost certainly trigger a snap general election in which they themselves might lose their jobs, based on the dismal outcome of the European polls.

"If they topple Brown, it's a bit like turkeys voting for Christmas, because I can't see that Labor could get away without calling an immediate general election," said Neil Carter, a political scientist at the University of York. "That's going to virtually guarantee that it would wipe out large numbers of [Labor] MPs."

Brown has also been helped by the lack of a clear candidate to succeed him, Carter said. The person named most often as a potential replacement, new Home Secretary Alan Johnson, has said that he does not want the job, though it's difficult to gauge the sincerity of such pronouncements.

A general election must be held sometime before the end of May.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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