Brown's Blues: Britain's PM on Borrowed Time

He has survived for now, but amid a scandal over MPs' expenses and following a historic rout in municipal and European polls, time is running out for Britain's Prime Minister. After 12 years, a truculent, angry nation is simply fed up with the Labour Party

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Oli Scarff / Getty

HOLDING ON: Brown leaves the House of Commons after a parliamentary Labour Party meeting on June 8. A few Labour members wanted him to quit, but most urged him to stay — for now

It was billed as tragedy — an insurrection that would topple the Labour Party's flawed hero, Gordon Brown — but it played out like a Marx Brothers farce. The June 8 meeting that would determine Brown's fate attracted so many Labour MPs and members of the House of Lords that a House of Commons committee room quickly filled to capacity. And still they came, squeezing their way into the mass of bodies politic. When a clutch of tardy ministers wrenched open the doors, pressure-packed colleagues tumbled into the corridor, itself lousy with reporters poised to relay the verdict.

That verdict, after the hoopla and spiraling speculation over Brown's future, was anticlimactic. The Prime Minister prevailed over the few rebels who dared advance a case for his ouster. It was a whimpering end to an uprising that had seen attacks on Brown's leadership from across the party, and serial resignations from his Cabinet. Just four days before, James Purnell, one of the party's brightest young stars, had delivered a Dear Gordon letter on the eve of a reshuffle that would have reaffirmed his own place at the Cabinet table. "I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely," he told Brown. (See pictures of Brown as he prepared to become Prime Minister.)

Purnell was referring to parliamentary elections due by next June, but the results of last week's municipal and European polls — a historic rout for Labour, a solid performance from the Conservatives and gains for fringe outfits including the far-right British National Party — graphically illustrated the concerns that launched Purnell's kamikaze mission. Labour's support has slumped under Brown. It has hemorrhaged support among the affluent voters of Middle England whose endorsement is essential to securing a parliamentary majority, and whom it wooed successfully in the 1990s. And it has been damaged, too, in hardscrabble industrial regions. A fresh face might be expected to give the party a boost and could hardly perform worse. But Brown picked up the keys to 10 Downing Street from Tony Blair, and any handover of power from one unelected Prime Minister to another would ratchet up pressure from political opponents and the public for an early election. When it came to the crunch, MPs — many of whom fear losing their seats — opted to put off the moment of truth. In retrospect, that was not surprising; turkeys rarely vote for an early Christmas.

Is His Party Really Over?
Still, an election must come within a year, and promises to answer a question of far more enduring significance than who should lead Labour. The issue is whether there will be a Labour Party left to lead. This isn't just about the danger of electoral wipeout, although that possibility is very real. The center-left consensus that has shaped Britain since Labour swept to power under Blair in 1997 is disintegrating, and the New Labour project that created it — the potent mix of idealism and pragmatism, of social-democratic aspirations and fiscal conservatism, of commitment to equality and opportunity — needs a radical overhaul. The big question: Can Labour recast itself, delineate a new identity and purpose? Or is this party, like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, definitely deceased? (Read "European Elections: A Blow to Brown, Boost for Merkel.")

Connecting with voters after 12 years in government isn't easy. In a society such as Britain, where politics is a contact sport, every crunching tackle covered by a breathless and indefatigable national media, the bonds between the public and their elected leaders inevitably fray over time. But connecting with voters who believe politicians to be corrupt, venal and self-obsessed is an even taller order. And that is now Labour's task. The party has endured a long, slow decline, but its current crisis was triggered by one of the greatest press exposés of the modern age. It started when a former soldier and Conservative supporter called John Wicks contacted the Telegraph Media Group with a disc containing details of MPs' expenses claims. Quite how Wicks came by the disc remains a mystery, but its contents now are not.

The expenses claims ranged from hilarious to heinous, from charges for replacing a bath plug to maintaining a moated residence. And they demonstrated that some politicians routinely worked the system to minimize their personal tax burden at public cost — much of this falling within rules agreed by MPs over years to enhance their remuneration without having to publicly award themselves fatter pay packets. Over 27 days of revelations in the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, politicians of all hues have been implicated and their reputations trashed.

When William Lewis, Telegraph editor-in-chief, first looked at the material Wicks brought him, he felt "physically sick," he says. "I knew at that moment we had no option but to publish because the readers needed to know what I had just been shown." Initial coverage focused on Labour. "In the early days we took a lot of heat from senior people in the Labour government about why we were starting with them," says Lewis.

Conspiracy theories were bound to flourish given Wicks' political affiliations and the Telegraph's own establishment credentials. Once nicknamed "The Torygraph," one of the daily's most famous editors served as a Conservative Cabinet minister; among its current star columnists is its former reporter, the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Lewis vehemently denies any suggestion of bias. The decision to start with government was purely editorial, he says, and MPs from the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties were subsequently scrutinized with the same vigor. "Had this expenses story landed in a different environment, it wouldn't have had this impact, of pushing the government to the verge of going," says Lewis. A Telegraph banner headline captured the spirit of the monster it had itself unleashed: A VERY BRITISH REVOLUTION.

Horror on the Doorstep
In another country, reports of elected representatives milking their expenses might send folk on to the streets to burn a few cars. Britons are angry — you only need to drop the word politician into a conversation to discover just how furious they are — but their anger is of the slow-burning, passive-aggressive variety of a people who wear socks with sandals. All the mainstream parties encountered hostility on the doorstep as they campaigned for last week's elections, but Labour, as the party of government, was perceived to carry the heaviest responsibility. "When we talk about the end of New Labour — and it is the end of New Labour if it hadn't died already — what really has gone on is that the country has said, as one, we're not going to put up with this any more," says Lewis.

Watch an interview with Gordon Brown.

See the top 10 most outrageous British expense claims.

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