Is Gordon Brown going down?

Can the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats really beat Labour and the Tories?

Stefan Wermuth/ Reuters

“Whatever else you think of Gordon Brown, his personal history in politics is one of the most fantastic resilience,” says Andrew Rawnsley, a British author and political journalist.

Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister now fighting for his political life in a bitter and stormy election campaign, is a man who was rejected as a potential leader by the Labour Party establishment 15 years ago. That favour went to his friend and rival, Tony Blair, who most observers didn’t think was as skilled or experienced but who performed better on television. Brown then spent a decade as Blair’s chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, plotting and waiting for Blair to step aside and make way. When Blair finally did, after winning three majorities, Brown faced both an electorate that was tired of the Labour Party, and a vigorous opponent in the younger and flashier Conservative Party leader, David Cameron. The Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third-largest party, were weak and riven with infighting. It appeared, at the time, that they could be safely ignored.

Brown enjoyed a brief honeymoon, but didn’t have the resolve to capitalize on this by calling a snap election, and things soon fell apart. He was never the gifted communicator that Blair was, and his dark sullenness appeared even more pronounced when compared to Cameron’s pink-cheeked energy. Brown developed a reputation as an obsessive and dithering micromanager, compulsively chewing his nails and unable to sleep.

Rawnsley, whose bestselling book, The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour, chronicles the premierships of Blair and Brown, says Brown’s cabinet ministers and party insiders tried to unseat him three times in as many years. Brown pushed back against each attempted coup, displaying a “volcanic temper” and a penchant for hurling his mobile phone at office walls. “A former cabinet colleague once said to me: ‘The man is made of steel. They’ll get him in the end, but they’ll have to carry him out,’ ” Francis Elliott, deputy political editor of the London Times, said in an interview with Maclean’s.

This belligerent stubbornness didn’t sit well with Britons during Brown’s first couple of years in office. Two years ago, he trailed Cameron in opinion polls by more than 20 per cent. But as the United Kingdom fell into recession, and then began to claw its way out, a brooding and immobile Prime Minister started to look like a more appropriate fit for the country. “Elements of his character that appeared to be damaging to the point of destruction have—after they’ve been seen over a long time—become slightly less problematic,” says Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “The very fact that, despite all the things that have been thrown at him, he’s still standing, still there, still leading the Labour Party, still leading the government, kind of gives him an indestructible quality, an inner toughness.”

On April 1, the Guardian newspaper ran a story that supposedly revealed an upcoming Labour Party billboard campaign. The sample poster featured the Prime Minister’s face cloaked in dark shadows and the caption: “Step Outside Posh Boy.” The prank was almost believable. Labour Party strategists accept that Brown is seen as an anti-social bully. But they want to stress that he’s also solid and experienced—unlike his wet toff of an opponent, David Cameron.

In early April, Brown called an election for May 6. During the final Prime Minister’s Questions before Parliament was dissolved, he described Cameron as someone who “was the future once.” It stung because it was the same line Cameron used against Blair years ago, and it suggested that the whirlwind of energy and excitement that used to surround Cameron has blown itself out to reveal a shiny man of little substance. An opinion poll a week later put Brown only three points behind Cameron.

Electoral victory for Brown was still a long shot. But at least he was upright in the ring, within striking distance of Cameron. It was all he realistically could have hoped for. And in a turbulent election campaign, the unexpected can happen.

Unfortunately for both Gordon Brown and David Cameron, it did—in the form of Liberal Democratic Leader Nick Clegg.

Nick Clegg and the left-leaning Liberal Democrats have never before been major players in British politics. The party has not won a national election or held the balance of power in a minority government. It had 63 seats in the House of Commons when Parliament was dissolved—a little less than 10 per cent. Nick Clegg rarely made the front pages of British newspapers and was a marginal presence during Prime Minister’s Questions.

But, for the first time ever in the United Kingdom, this election campaign includes televised leaders’ debates, in which Brown, Cameron and Clegg face off as apparent equals, side by side, before a live audience, with no advantage afforded to the candidate with the most seats or the longest tenure in office. The first debate was held last Thursday. “Everybody who previously discussed opinion polls said that virtually no one event could have such a seismic effect,” says Travers, the LSE political analyst. “That was the received wisdom. And, like all received wisdom, it exists only to be disproved. It has been.”

Clegg, young and photogenic, shone during the debate as he tried to present himself as an alternative to his more established opponents. “The more they attack each other, the more they sound the same,” he said at one point, in an obviously scripted outburst that nevertheless resonated. Brown and Cameron underestimated the impact Clegg was having and didn’t turn on him in force. In fact, Brown’s repeated assertion, “I agree with Nick,” has given the Liberal Democrats a new election slogan. It’s on buttons.

Within days, Liberal Democrat poll numbers soared 10 points. An April 19 YouGov poll put the party in first place with 33 per cent, narrowly above the Conservatives and seven points ahead of Labour. Travers says the debate triggered a shift in public opinion built on anger and cynicism that previously lacked an outlet: “It looks as if it is an expression of revulsion with an administration and with traditional politics in Britain, which was waiting to find something to gather around and has now found it.”

Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a think tank at the LSE, says Clegg benefits from his image as an “insurgent outsider.” Beckett nevertheless thinks support for Clegg is soft and fleeting, and that more Britons will turn away from the Liberal Democrats as they learn about the party’s pro-Europe, pro-immigration platform. Beckett may be correct. But nobody really knows. “It is unprecedented. It is genuinely unusual territory,” he says of the Liberal Democrats’ surge. And it comes with only two weeks until voting day. Cameron and Brown don’t have a lot of time to burst Clegg’s bubble.

Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, is already trying. “The current fantasy of a Liberal Democrat resurgence is the biggest load of media-driven nonsense since the funeral of Diana,” he wrote recently. Norman Tebbit, a long-time Conservative politician, now in the House of Lords, urged Cameron to step up his attack on Clegg, a man he describes as a “sycophantic Europhile.”

It’s understandable that Conservatives are angry and baffled. Victory in this election once looked all but assured, and now there is a chance it might slip away. But a good portion of the blame for that belongs with David Cameron and the rest of the party.

A scandal over MPs’ expenses last year hurt the Conservatives and Labour more than the Liberal Democrats. And despite David Cameron’s successful attempts to modernize the Conservative Party and expand its base, it is becoming clear that there are limits to his personal appeal. “After four years on the job, he no longer has enough good will or momentum in the bank to drag his party over the finish line in a hurry,” says Elliott, a biographer of Cameron.

Cameron’s shift toward the political centre has also alienated more conservative Britons, who believe he lacks political conviction. These include James Delingpole, an old friend of Cameron’s from university, now an author and journalist. “Isn’t there a point where this notion of ‘politics is the art of the possible’ crosses the line from sensible pragmatism into the kind of moral cowardice that entirely defeats the object of being in politics at all?” he wrote recently.

“I’m not sure he ever had any principles,” Delingpole said in an interview with Maclean’s. “The thing about David Cameron is that, at Oxford, it wasn’t at all clear that he was remotely interested in politics. He showed no political inclination, other than having this aura that some Etonians have of sort of feeling that perhaps one day they ought to be running the country, because that would be the right and proper thing to do. I’m not necessarily saying that David has reneged on his early Tory soundness. It may be that he never had it. It is one of the great mysteries of the world: what does David Cameron stand for, what did he ever stand for, other than getting himself elected?”

George Jones, an emeritus professor of government at LSE, points out that Tony Blair encountered the same sort of hostility from socialist Labour supporters when he moved the party to the centre in the mid-1990s. But Blair’s shift accompanied a genuinely new political movement in the form of New Labour. Cameron, despite describing himself as the “heir to Blair,” failed to generate comparable momentum. He allowed another party leader to portray himself as the candidate for change. Nick Clegg has seized that opportunity. How far he’ll take it is, for now, unanswerable.

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