Gordon Brown's high noon

The British prime minister must be trembling and gulping as he endlessly re-drafts his speech. The Labor party conference opens tomorrow, and all eyes are on theleast popular PM since the 1930s. Surrounded by plotters openly seeking his replacement, this is not Gordon Brown’s finest hour.  

He is not responsible for the global financial meltdown, which this week resulted in Britain’s biggest bank taking over its biggest mortgage lender. At times of tension and uncertainty, people seek a scapegoat -- and the PM is, if I can mix animal metaphors, a sitting duck.

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This is because he was in charge of the nation’s finances for a decade under Tony Blair, and staked his credibility on one of the longest-ever periods of economic growth. He was always going to bear the brunt of a wave of anger at the Government for failing to rein in the irresponsible lenders. The "prudent" chancellor of the exchequer has become the recklessly irresponsible former chancellor. There is no-one in Britain who does not remember his claim to have got rid of the "boom and bust" cycles: yet now, after a long boom, comes the big bust.

The Labor Government is now deeply unpopular, and Labor MPs know they face in 18 month’s time a rout as great as that of the Conservatives in 1997, when Tony Blair triumphed against a tired and discredited administration which had been in power for over a decade. Because it is impossible to de-link this particular prime minister and the state of the economy, many MPs as well as a majority in the party would like to see a change of leader (the foreign minister, David Milliband, is the party’s favorite) well in advance of an expected 2010 general election.

But for all their protestations about a need for a "change in policy", none of the rebel MPs has any real alternative set of policies; there is no other "vision" that will win back the British people to Labor. And there is a good argument for saying, as ministers have been, that there is no-one with more or better experience in handling the economy than the former chancellor.

Yet the current political crisis in Britain is not about policies or vision or economic management. It is about leadership. 

In crises, that’s what people look for. They want to be summoned together in the nation’s hour of need. They want to be asked to hope in spite of the anxiety that surrounds them, to serve others at the moment where fear leads to a sauve qui peut mentality. They want to be told that the seas will be rough, but the boat sturdy. They want to trust their captain.

And it is here where Brown is so spectacularly lacking. Blair would have done the British equivalent of a "My fellow Americans" presidential address. He would have pleaded for our trust (although this never worked so well after the Iraq war) and done those things which leaders do to earn it. Even when Blair did little, it looked like a lot; even when Brown is acting swiftly and decisively, he looks (third animal simile) like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

He is not, in short, the man for a crisis. And this crisis - a financial freeze which is fast chilling the economy -- is set to deepen.

Yet changing leader -- as a majority of the party’s MPs acting together can do at any time -- looks like an act of desperation. It will only happen if the alternative (Brown hanging on) looks even worse.

Most Labor MPs aren’t sure at the moment which is worse. They are going to Conference with that uncertainty at the front of their minds. By its end, they will have decided.

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