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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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

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Scanning the front pages of the Telegraph and rival newspapers he sells from his central London shop, Pankaj Mehta highlights another reason the expenses scandal hit Labour hardest. Reports of Conservative grandees submitting bills for the upkeep of mansions have reinforced the party's unfortunate image of entitlement and wealth, but the vision of Labour MPs subsidizing their lifestyles is more damaging still. New Labour defined itself as a party that encouraged wealth creation, that in the words of Peter Mandelson, Business Secretary and Brown's de facto deputy, was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich." But it still prioritized the needs of ordinary Britons. "When you see politicians charging for small things, like a bathroom plug, you know they don't care about the common people," says Mehta. The message from opinion polls is unequivocal: the majority of Britons favor an early election to restore faith in Parliament. Mehta concurs. The only difference between Britain and a dictatorship, he says, "is that here they cling onto power legally. There should be an election; let the people decide."

Brown's victory against the rebels could leave Mehta hanging on until next year for a chance to kick — or kick out — his MP. But the Prime Minister faces further bruising tests even before September, when Labour arrives in Brighton, a raffish seaside resort, for its annual conference, the traditional moment for coup attempts. And that's presuming Brown weathers two by-elections sparked by the expenses scandal. Michael Martin, a Labour MP serving in the party-neutral role of Speaker, or chair, of the Commons, steps down later this month. He was forced out after MPs' protests that he was an obstacle to parliamentary reform. Ian Gibson resigned his marginal seat after a Labour committee examining the expenses revelations ruled he could not stand for the party at the next election. (See pictures of polarizing politicians at LIFE.com.)

Punching Above His Weight
MPs pledged to support Brown after he promised to change. "There are some things I do well and some things I do not so well," he said as faced down his critics. Both parts of that statement are accurate. Some of the things Brown does well are those that helped build New Labour's reputation. Old Labour was the party of tax and spend. New Labour, for the first two years after its 1997 victory, adhered to stringent spending plans set by its Conservative predecessors. Even after that date, as Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer, or Finance Minister — the office that best suited Brown — he held to his "golden rule," borrowing only to invest, and resisted raising the tax rate paid by top earners to fund Labour's social-justice and equality initiatives.

The financial crisis that broke last year played to Brown's strengths. He handled policy as well as any national leader, even if there were questions about the light-touch system of financial regulation he had championed. And he hosted the G-20 economic summit in London deftly, showing there were times when, even after Blair, Britain could punch above its weight. (See a TIME video from outside the G-20.)

Yet even as the downturn forced Labour to dump its tarnished rule to start spending like Paris Hilton on a shopping spree, it revealed weaknesses in Labour's orthodoxy about wealth creation as the means to social justice. After years of boom, the gap between rich and poor in Britain has actually widened, while higher earners face swingeing future taxes to plug a widening deficit. And some of the things Brown does not do so well are the things that have made him vulnerable to leadership challenges. A serious man, a well-meaning man, he's a hopeless communicator in an age of remorseless, ceaseless communication. He's also tribal and factional. Faultlines between his foot soldiers and Blair's adherents persist two years after collateral damage from the Iraq war — and the two men's bitter rivalry — persuaded Blair to stand aside. Labour's third term in office, secured in 2005, has been "blighted," says Neil Stewart, who was Political Secretary to Neil Kinnock, Labour's leader during its wilderness years in the 1980s and early 1990s. "This third term should have been the most reforming. It's been first waiting for Tony to go and then waiting for Gordon to make his mind up. I can hardly believe the damage of that internecine battle, just how utterly destructive and wasteful of huge amounts of political capital that was."

He Says He's the Great Reformer
Stewart witnessed at close hand Labour's shock defeat in the 1992 election it was widely expected to win. That defeat inspired Labour's painful decision to throw out old class-war shibboleths and remake itself for a newly prosperous nation. The party now faces a similar proposition, Stewart believes: reform or die. "If the Labour Party fails to reform itself, then the second stage is that the electorate will reform it by throwing it out," he says, adding: "Barring an event like the Falklands War which helped save [Margaret] Thatcher, Labour is on a trajectory to a deep loss that could mean not just the disintegration of the Labour party but the end of strong social-democratic politics in Britain."

By a strange twist, the crises engulfing Labour are forcing the party to tackle issues central to what might be called "New New Labour" concerns: recalibrating economic policy for reshaped realities; overhauling Britain's antiquated parliamentary system to increase accountability and transparency; reviewing its electoral system to broaden participation. On June 10, Brown announced a raft of proposals, including a part-elected House of Lords, independent regulation of Parliament and a statutory code of conduct for MPs. "The expenses crisis has actually delivered us an amazing opportunity for radical change," says Ben Bradshaw, newly created Culture Secretary in Brown's reconstituted Cabinet. "Gordon is talking about reforming the machine, about real constitutional and political reform."

That would be nice, if Brown has the strength to make a difference. But after 12 years, and facing a public whose attitude to politicians is a toxic mixture of weariness and disgust, the problem for the Prime Minister, as for Labour, will be persuading anyone to listen.

Read "Gordon Brown Keeps Job, But Problems Remain."

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