Expenses Scandal Only Adds to Brown's Woes

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Matt Dunham/Reuters

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown gestures during a question and answer session at a crime tackling conference in London

Three thousand dollars to fix the pipes beneath a tennis court; $462 for the upkeep of a swimming pool; $942 to fit a chandelier. The extravagance of many of the expense claims filed by British MPs in recent years, deliciously catalogued this past week by the country's Daily Telegraph newspaper, which obtained leaked details, have British voters fuming. In a poll taken by the Times of London, more than four fifths of Britons thought all the country's legislators were as bad as each other for milking their allowance system, if not illegally, then far beyond its spirit. A majority said the furor was proof of "how self-serving and out of touch most [politicians] are".

Amid the stench, few politicians come out smelling like roses. (Not even David Heathcoat-Amory, the Conservative legislator, who put in for $591 worth of horse manure for his garden.) But as in any mess, that hasn't stopped the parties' getting political in their response. And Gordon Brown, Britain's already browbeaten Prime Minister, has had the worst of it. In response to publication Tuesday of his party's own profligate claims, Conservative leader David Cameron was quick to sound contrite. Tory MPs, he thundered, "appalled" by the detail, would be made to cough up for "excessive" claims. Rules on what his MPs could and couldn't claim for, he added, would be tightened. A day later, Cameron goaded Brown to "show some leadership" in slashing parliamentarians' generous allowances. "How can we bring about the change this country needs," Cameron asked the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, "if we cannot change ourselves?" (See the Top 10 most outrageous claims.)

Cameron's challenge may have been neatly packaged for public consumption, but it did its job. Brown, leaning heavily on an independent review of the allowances system, its findings due by the end of the year, looked plodding and procedural by comparison. That's perhaps not surprising. When he did attempt a quick response last month to the first signs of a brewing expenses scandal, his proposals — broadcast in a YouTube message which rapidly became known for the Prime Minister's awkwardness rather than his ideas' merit — soon unraveled.

But onscreen clumsiness is far from Brown's only problem. The expense claims rumpus couldn't have come at a worse time for the Prime Minister. The country's economy — Brown's ticket into Downing Street two years ago after a largely successful decade as finance minister — has slid into reverse. Success confronting problems on the global stage, most recently at April's productive G-20 summit in London, has sharpened criticism that he's lacking an agenda at home. (When an e-mail discussing smears against senior Conservatives, written by one of Brown's close aides, surfaced days after the summit, even that goodwill evaporated.) (Watch a TIME video from outside the G-20 summit in London.)

With few giving him any chance in general elections expected in 12 months, Brown looks fresh out of ideas — and luck. A tabloid newspaper this week published make-up instructions written for the Prime Minister, found among official papers left in the back of a taxi. The brief advised the P.M. on using foundation, concealer, and fake tan. To his credit, though, they didn't end up on expenses.

See the Top 10 most outrageous claims.

Read a TIME cover story on Gordon Brown.