Brown prepares to face down critics

After the coronation, the coup?

Dissent over British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s faltering performance is threatening to hit a crescendo as his governing Labour Party meets for an annual conference this weekend.

With Britain’s economy tumbling toward recession, house values plummeting and inflation riding high, delegates in the northern England city of Manchester are openly considering a bid to oust the embattled leader.

“It’s a question of when and how—not if. That feeling goes from the top to the bottom of the party,” said Graham Stringer, a Labour lawmaker who represents a district of Manchester.

“Ordinary activists are in despair. They wish the fighting would stop, but they know that Brown is a loser,” said Stringer.

Since Brown replaced Tony Blair in June last year, Labour has been routed in a series of special elections, lost control of London’s City Hall to the main opposition Conservatives and blundered over key decisions on holding a snap national election and overhauling taxes.

Brown has seemingly only delivered on one promise: to make a clean break from the leadership of his charismatic and politically agile predecessor.

While Blair won three straight national elections starting in 1997, Brown has seen his party’s opinion poll ratings slump to an almost unprecedented low.
Rebel lawmakers joke Brown is almost as unpopular as Neville Chamberlain, the British leader who tried to appease Adolf Hitler in 1938.

Stringer said most in his party concede a new leader is needed, fearing as many as 200 lawmakers could be booted from office at the next national election—which must be called by mid-2010.

Even the party’s traditional political base—Britain’s labour unions—are deserting Brown, angered over public-sector pay freezes and his refusal to embrace their traditionally leftist agenda.

‘Busted flush’
Richard Balfe, a former European legislator for Labour who switched allegiance to the Conservatives, claims he’s had some success in persuading rank and file union members to reconsider the Tories—their one-time nemesis.

“The Labour party is a busted flush, we’ve shown the trade unions we don’t think that they’re the enemy—and that we’re the alternative government,” said Balfe, the Conservatives’ labour envoy.

Brown seeks to use the five-day rally to strike an optimistic new tone, aiming to counter Conservative leader David Cameron’s message that Britain is a broken society that can only be healed by his party’s plans for social reform.

“Our ambitions for Britain are high. We recognise that achieving these goals will not be easy but we are also optimistic about our country’s ability to win through,” Brown said in a document being circulated to delegates as the conference begins on Saturday.

“We do not have a pessimistic view that runs Britain down all the time,” he said, in a swipe at his rival.

Some activists still believe Brown could revive his party’s fortunes. Loyalists claim the ex-Treasury chief may benefit from the global downturn, using his command of the economic brief to lead Britain out of the crisis—but they urge him to hurry.

“He has great capabilities, but people won’t wait long for him to start living up to his potential,” said Alex Hilton, an activist selected to stand as a Labour candidate at the next election.

Address
In his conference address, Brown is likely to emphasise his role in aiding the takeover of British mortgage lender HBOS by Lloyds TSB, and Britain’s clampdown on short-selling—betting that a stock price will decline—as proof of his bold action on the economy.

But even a show-stopping speech by Brown on Tuesday won’t likely silence his critics—with a tricky special election looming in Scotland and new battles over unpopular terrorism laws ahead.

His chief opponent believes the party’s grumbling against Brown will eventually prove his undoing.

“Obviously, I think you see a great turmoil in the Labour Party, where they can’t decide whether to back their leader or sack him,” Cameron said in an interview this week.

“The problem for Britain is that we face very difficult economic times, and we need a strong prime minister and a united government, and I think that’s what the Conservative Party can provide,” he said.

Patrick Dunleavy, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, said Brown’s challengers will likely hold their fire during the conference—pledging loyalty at a time of economic turmoil. But the youthful Foreign Secretary David Miliband and popular Health Secretary Alan Johnson could move against Brown by next spring, he said.

An online poll of 788 Labour activists published on Friday showed that about half want a new leader to take them into the next election.

Recent surveys even suggest the public believes one senior Labour figure could rescue the party from electoral catastrophe—the trouble is, that man is Tony Blair, who quit his job and left Parliament last June.—Sapa-AP

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