Talk about gallows humor. One Thursday morning in July, a small group of M.P.s trooped into 10 Downing Street for breakfast with the prime minister in the Cabinet Room. Crashing in the polls, Gordon Brown had invited them as part of a series of morale-boosting get-togethers. Before Brown arrived—looking "awful," his fingernails chewed to the quick, one of his visitors recalls—a couple of Brown's guests, like puckish schoolboys on a museum tour, paused by a gleaming ceremonial sword displayed on a side table. "Do you think somebody put it there," one whispered to the other, "just in case he wants to, you know, do himself in?"
It's gotten that bad for Brown. The former chancellor of the Exchequer's reputation for economic competence has been erased by bad economic news and forecasts of slower growth and rising unemployment. A Scotsman, he has led Labour to a string of embarrassing electoral defeats, most recently this July in the former party stronghold of Glasgow East, his home ground. His plodding ways at a time of a worsening international credit crunch and disenchantment at home after more than 11 years of Labour rule are killing his party in the polls. According to one newspaper analysis, the party is destined to lose nearly half its seats in the next national election, its worst showing since 1935.
Brown may not even make it that far. An increasingly serious plot to unseat him has electrified British politics—all the more so because allies of former prime minister Tony Blair are rallying behind another potential boy wonder, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, in an endeavor to save the party. The betting among M.P.s and political professionals is that there's a 50-50 chance Brown will not last out the year. The case against Brown is "pure and simple," said one angry M.P., who like others in this saga spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter. "Either he goes or the party dies."
In a parliamentary system like Britain's, a prime minister can fall at astonishing speed. Recall that Margaret Thatcher was toppled in 1990 less than a month after the resignation of a key cabinet minister over policy differences. Now London papers are full of reports of ministerial resignations, and three M.P.s who were cabinet members under Blair—Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and Charles Clarke—have publicly criticized Brown for nudging Labour to the left and shying away from some of the more radical free-market reforms.
Even if Brown, 57, hangs on until the last possible date for a general election, June 3, 2010, it appears that the Blair-Brown era of British politics is drawing to a close. The Conservative Party has recovered from more than a decade in the political wilderness, and now looks likely to return to power under the fresh leadership of David Cameron, 41. Meanwhile, a new, younger generation of Labour politicians will have to resolve the tensions between the Brownite wing and the now emboldened Blairites. The party is split along a left-right divide. Blair was unabashedly pro-business and anti-union; he enjoyed the support of organized labor only because it had no other party to turn to. Brown's policy instincts are more traditionally to the left of Blair's. Furthermore, because Labour is deep in debt and weaker politically than it was during the early Blair years, it is, under Brown, depending more and more on its union allies for financial support. Labour's next generation will have to address the debilitating left-right fissure if the party is to move forward once again.
Miliband is the unofficial leader of the Blairite rebellion. He once headed Blair's policy unit at No. 10, spearheading reforms that Brown, as chancellor, sometimes sought to block. At the end of July, Miliband wrote an article in The Guardian setting out his vision for Labour's credo and his critique of Cameron. He defined Labour doctrine as he would like to see it ("a political creed … combining government action and personal freedom") and made a lucid attack on Cameron as "a politician of the status quo" (unlike Thatcher, "he is a conservative, not a radical. He doesn't share a restlessness for change. He may be likable and sometimes hard to disagree with, but he is empty").
In the view of many M.P.s, including even some of his own supporters, Brown has not been able to articulate a vision of what he and Labour stand for, nor has he mounted such a coherent criticism of the Tory opposition. Instead, he seems to favor staccato announcements and reannouncements of initiatives and reviews over a clear and overarching political message. But it was the fact that Miliband didn't once mention Brown's name that was interpreted—correctly, according to sources close to Miliband—as an attack on Brown and a bid by Miliband to replace him as party leader. (Speaking of coded messages, you'll find the 43-year-old Miliband in Facebook, with the famous No. 10 door as the backdrop to his profile photo. Cheeky, as the Brits say.)
Miliband was not acting alone. It's apparent from the language of his piece that Phil Collins, a former speechwriter for Blair and a veteran of think tanks that were incubators of Blairite thinking, had a hand in it. In June Collins had helped to write another critique of the Tories (titled "Radicals or Conservatives?") by James Purnell, a 38-year-old former special adviser to Blair who is now secretary of state for Work and Pensions in the Brown government. Along with a growing contingent of Blairite M.P.s, a number of other Blair-era aides are reported to be informally advising Miliband, including Peter Hyman, another former speechwriter, and D. J. Collins, a former Whitehall special adviser.
Blair himself has scrupulously avoided any connection to plots against Brown. He's kept busy with the work of his various foundations and his role as special Middle East envoy for the Quartet, the foursome made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. But recently a memo came to light in which Blair analyzed Brown's spectacular drop in popularity after last year's Labour Party Conference. In the memo, written last autumn but leaked to a newspaper in early August, Blair criticizes the "hubris and vacuity" of the Labour conference, and complains that Brown "junked" the Blair "policy agenda but had nothing to put in its place." Perhaps most cruelly, Blair dismisses Brown's ability to fix what's wrong. "I am passing this message on to G.B.—not in these terms—and will try to help; but at present, there is every indication that the lessons will not be learnt."
Brown won't be easy to force out. He spent a two-week holiday on the Suffolk coast devising new policy initiatives and public-relations strategies. He reportedly hired a personal trainer to help get him fit for the brewing fight. Over the coming weeks, Brown will throw the full weight of his government behind what amounts to a personal rescue operation. The word is out that the government may suspend the "stamp duty" tax of 1 percent on residential home purchases below £250,000. With fuel prices as high as they are—gasoline sells for £1.23 per liter—he may offer some people price breaks. He will probably reshuffle his cabinet in early September.
Bold personnel changes could demonstrate strength, dominate the news for a while, entrench his supporters and possibly even straitjacket some rivals in the cabinet, like Miliband, by keeping them busy with new jobs. Brown will then briefly transplant the entire cabinet from Whitehall to well outside London to try to show he hasn't lost touch with the people. Finally, though showmanship has never been his forte, he will use the party conference and his big speech there to try to relaunch himself and his government by pledging, among other things, to steer Britain safely through troubled economic waters.
But at some level Brown must know that there is very little he can do to satisfy the members of the unofficial Dump Gordon movement. They bitterly resented his involvement in the "coup" against Blair two years ago. They also complain that Brown, as chancellor, thwarted some of Blair's public-service reforms that were more market-oriented than Brown would have liked. Indeed, they blame Brown, along with the costly and unpopular war in Iraq, for many of the perceived shortcomings of Blair's years in office. In their view, Brown—politically to the left of Blair, harboring a grudge against him over the leadership showdown between them many years ago, a man once described by a Blair aide as "psychologically flawed"—was bound not only to play a role in Blair's undoing but also to make a poor prime minister.Still, it would be wrong to see the drama unfolding this summer as being all about the past—as a vainglorious refighting of the Blair-Brown feud that consumed so much time and energy during Blair I, II and III, and now Brown I. The more important battle concerns the nature of the Labour Party after Blair and Brown are both gone and the Conservative Party readies itself for power once again. "For the Labour Party to have a future, it has to overcome the gulf of the past," says a source close to Miliband. Whether Miliband is the one to breach the chasm remains an open question. But whoever does it and whenever it is done, Gordon Brown will have to get out of the way first.