In office only months, Brown struggles

Succession of crises weakens Britain's new prime minister

December 05, 2007|By New York Times News Service.

LONDON -- When he took office last summer, Prime Minister Gordon Brown presented himself as the anti-Tony Blair: colorless but capable, dour but trustworthy. The idea was that he would be a burst of cool Scottish forthrightness after the murky spin and dissembling that had come to cloud perceptions of Blair's played-out government.

It is a hard trick to pull off, dissociating yourself so completely from someone for whom you worked for a decade, as Brown had for Blair. At first, the new prime minister seemed to have succeeded.

Faced with a succession of crises, including a thwarted terrorist attack and a bout of heavy cross-country flooding, he responded with unexpected deftness and assurance, radiating a newfound prime ministerial gravitas.

But since its brief honeymoon, the Brown government has had little time to do much governing, but has lurched from disaster to disaster. Now polling about 10 points behind the opposition Conservatives after having a comfortable lead in September, Brown's government has suffered a reversal of fortune that "must rank as one of the wonders of modern politics," Brian Wilson, a former minister in the Blair government, wrote in The Sunday Telegraph.

It is still very early in Brown's premiership, as he is not obliged to call a general election until 2010. But there are murmurings that he has been hurt so badly that the government has come to resemble that of John Major in its final years, fatally wounded by a series of mismanagement and personal scandals.

Brown has certainly been unlucky in the sheer number and unexpectedness of the crises befalling his government:

The near-collapse of Northern Rock bank, a major mortgage lender kept afloat by more than $47 billion in loans from the Bank of England; the mortifying loss by the government's tax agency of two unencrypted computer disks containing the bank account details and addresses of 25 million people; and last week, the revelation that the Labor Party accepted $1.2 million from a property developer who illegally used the names of other people when making donations.

There is a widespread perception that Brown's responses have been clumsy and inept, reflecting the brooding arrogance and a bunker mentality that his detractors in Blair's camp used to predict would be his undoing.

"He has an introverted personality that works well when life is good, but not when the chips are down," said Anthony Seldon, the author of Blair Unbound, an account of the later years of the Blair government. "Then he doesn't think rationally and he doesn't deal pleasantly with the people around him."

Seldon said that, so far, Brown had failed at the one thing he set out to do: prove that he was a better prime minister than Blair.

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