"Everyone has his day, and some days last longer than others." Winston Churchill's aphorism resonates for his 21st century successor, Gordon Brown. Just weeks ago the British Prime Minister looked fist-clenchingly impotent as insurrection bubbled in Labour's ranks and his Conservative opponents thumbed their noses from the safe distance of a 20-point poll advantage. Then came convulsions in the global economy. The scramble to avert meltdown drove Labour rebels into retreat, halved the Tory lead and granted Brown more than just a reprieve from domestic woes. As Congress bickered over the U.S. bailout and European leaders vacillated between a unified response and defending national interests, the old, beaten Brown shuffled off stage. Into the limelight stepped New Brown, pitch-perfect in his Churchillian gravitas, a crisis leader for Britain and the world.
Since Brown unveiled his plan to recapitalize British banks on Oct. 8, his day has yet to end. Downing Street phones ring off the hook as policymakers and financiers vie for a few minutes of his wisdom. When he's not doling out advice, he's meeting with his economic "war cabinet," or giving speeches and blitzing every conceivable media outlet. He has traveled to the European Council in Brussels and before that to Paris for an emergency summit of euro-zone countries — even though he refused to adopt the euro during his 10-year tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer. With marked success, his Treasury successor, Alistair Darling, has promoted the patented Brown rescue plan to the IMF, the G-7 and the G-20. Even U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has recalibrated his scheme along Brownian lines.
From zero to hero, Brown now basks in international acclaim. A French newspaper dubbed the British pol "the resuscitated magician," and Paul Krugman, the freshly minted Nobel economics laureate, said Brown "may have shown us the way through this crisis."
Thorns lurk in some bouquets. A columnist for Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung drew parallels between the famously moody Brown and the "sociopath" Churchill. However provocative, the comparison is apt: that just as war allowed Churchill to shine, so does the economic crisis play to Brown's strengths.
The sight of an ascendant Brown sticks in the craws of Conservatives. In private, they're Oliver Hardys, expostulating over the nice mess they say Brown has gotten the country into. In public, they mostly retreat from confrontation like a herd of Stan Laurels. Opposition parties have pledged for now to support the government's efforts to end the turmoil, but are itching to emphasize Brown's own role in creating it. "When he rewrote financial regulation in 1997, Gordon Brown took away the Bank of England's power to call time on the build-up of debt," Conservative Shadow Chancellor George Osborne tells Time in a rare frontal attack. "The result is that we now have the most personal debt of any major economy ever."
Brown's speed-of-light transformation from champion of market liberalization to strict regulator has left even his allies shaking their heads in disbelief. "Who would have dreamed that a financial crisis would have given Labour a lifeline?" marvels former Home Secretary David Blunkett. One reason is that Brown has shifted blame to greedy bankers (he inveighs against "the age of irresponsibility") and to America's subprime mortgage debacle. "It is pretty clear to me that this problem started in America," Brown declared as he unveiled the bank bailout. The idea of a global contagion originating in a distant country ties in with his long-term campaign to reform international institutions to meet the challenges of a globalized economy.
In another era, this seemed wonkish and worthy, hardly the stuff of stirring political phrasemaking. Today, though, Brown looks prescient. "We must now go further and develop new global structures for the global age. The events of recent months have pointed out inadequacies in our understanding of the interrelationships between financial markets and between countries." That could be a Brown sound bite from yesterday, but it comes from a 1998 speech on Asia's market meltdown. Speaking to TIME last spring, he worried about the danger of "national supervisors and global flows of capital ... Nobody has quite understood how big the restructuring of the world economy needs to be." Nobody, his supporters would argue, but a politician who has focused on the problem for years.
Brown is in his element, a lame duck confounding expectations by soaring high. (Aides warn him against looking cheerful.) His critics take comfort from history: an ungrateful British public voted Churchill out of office at war's end. Still, by that logic Brown is safe until the financial turbulence subsides. For a Premier who only a month ago was staring defeat in the
face, the world's economic nightmare looks like an economic miracle.
6 months ago