Battle on the Thames Update

As of this morning, the campaign of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown literally involves a car crash. Mr. Brown was launching the Labour Party's new poster campaign today in central London when some garbage men were so caught up in heckling him that they forgot to look where they were going. No one was hurt, thank God. That people would risk life and limb though just to heckle the Labour leader gives some indication of how far his popularity has fallen.

It's not entirely his fault. Mr. Brown happens to be Prime Minister at the end of thirteen years of an exhausted Labour government, in the grip of a stalled economy. These forces have combined to make this a change election. It really wouldn’t matter who was in Number 10 right now; the country's in a "throw the bums out" mood and will not be deterred. Mr. Brown, of course, isn't helping himself. With less than a week to go before Britain heads to the polls, Mr. Brown is still reeling from a titanic gaffe earlier this week in which he (thinking his microphone was off) called a lifelong Labour supporter a bigot after she asked a pretty straightforward, seemingly innocent question about immigration. When Mrs. Duffy of Rochdale learned what the P.M. had said, she cried, and neighbors rushed to her defense, claiming that she is not only not bigoted but is, in fact, a kindly old churchwoman who volunteers with disabled children and is widely regarded as the "Susan Boyle" of Lancashire. Mr. Brown went groveling with an apology later in the day, but the damage was done.

Brown has also not helped himself in the three prime ministerial debates, which concluded last night. He has consistently placed third in most polls asking people to rank the leaders' performances. Last night's debate should have been his shining moment: the topic was the economy, which, as a former treasury official, is Brown’s strong suit. Mr. Brown seemed ill at ease throughout, responding in a frustrated, impatient tone that resembled George H.W. Bush in the 1992 presidential debates. Nick Clegg (the Liberal Democrat leader) and David Cameron (the Conservative leader) kept pressing him on the U.K.'s growing deficit and anemic economy and Brown's lackluster response amounted to a lecture about the advantages of incumbency in a crisis. Experience matters, of course, but as Hillary Clinton can tell you, it matters very little in a change election.

The latest, most reliable polls this week have the Conservatives at about 36%, the Liberal Democrats at 28% and Labour at about 26%. If those numbers replicate across Britain on May 6, then the Conservatives will have a majority in the next Parliament, but just barely. In fact, that result would give the Tories 326 seats in the House of Commons, the exact number they would need, with no room for error. What seems almost certain is that Labour will finish third in the popular vote (though, because of the peculiarities in the British system, it may still have the second largest number of seats). A third place finish for Labour would be a severe blow for the party and an incredible boost for the Liberal Democrats, who have not finished second in a national election since the 1920s. In fact, a Conservative, Liberal, Labour result, in that order, would mean that British politics has effectively come full circle in the last century.

A hung parliament, of course, remains a distinct possibility. In the humble judgment of this American observer, however, that seems unlikely. The British electorate, though hungry for change, is still lower-case 'c' conservative: In the end, they will vote for change, but it will likely be a 'traditional' kind of change, swapping a Labour majority for a Conservative one, while avoiding the messiness of a coalition government and the uncertainties of a Liberal ascendancy.

Britain is anxious for it all to be over, as they are already weary of the sloganeering, posturing and advertising. I tell them to consider themselves lucky: In the U.S., our national elections go on for two seemingly interminable years.


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