DIE ANOTHER DAY:
A visitor to the British Labour Party conference in Manchester could be forgiven for thinking he had blundered onto the set of an avant-garde staging of Macbeth, and not just because Prime Minister
‘s inner circle–and a number of his enemies–speak in Scottish accents. After a year that saw Labour’s eleven-point lead over the Tories turn into a twenty-point deficit, the shadow of political death hung over every conversation, from the gallows humor on display at fringe meetings to the constant back-room talk of knifings and decapitation. One prospective Labour candidate, wondering aloud whether Brown’s removal as party leader would help his own fast-fading chances for election, actually turned to me and said, “‘Twere well it were done quickly.”
Not all of the prime minister’s difficulties are of his own making. The run on
, a British bank brought down by the credit crunch, and the skyrocketing prices of food and oil, were arguably circumstances beyond his control. But when Brown backed out of a snap election last fall for fear of losing a chunk of his majority, the media–and the public–seemed to turn against him. A bill allowing terrorist suspects to be held for forty-two days without trial and the government’s decision to double the tax rate for Britain’s working poor–two issues that allowed the Tories to stand on Labour’s left–created huge self-inflicted wounds in the party’s base.
Only the disarray among his Labour rivals allowed Brown to hang on, hoping, like Mr. Micawber, that “something will turn up.” In fact, it was the sharp downward turn on Wall Street that gave the prime minister his stay of execution. Though ostensibly aimed at the youthful
, Brown’s jibe “This is no time for a novice” also skewered
, the 43-year-old foreign secretary, who has emerged as Brown’s most dangerous rival.
Staking his future on the issue of economic competence is a risky strategy, though. On September 29 the Tories promised to freeze the widely hated council tax for two years. And if Britain, whose banks are rotten with American subprime derivatives, follows the US economy over a cliff, voters may decide that Labour’s “intensely relaxed” approach to market regulation deserves much of the blame. It was Brown, after all, who kept Britain out of the euro. Moreover, the prime minister does not have the option of a Paulson-scale bailout. The assets of the four largest London banks amount to four times the country’s GDP.