Global crisis reinvigorates Brown
Many voters see "down and out" British PM as most trusted to navigate financial crisis.
Last Modified: 16 Oct 2008 18:35 GMT

Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minister, used his party's annual conference to talk about his experience as a decade-long finance minister [EPA]

Harold Wilson, a former British prime minister, once pronounced that "a week is a long time in politics". He must have been able to see into the future as well.

Last week, I was in Manchester at the British Labour party's annual conference.

Gordon Brown, the current prime minister, was preparing for what was being trailed as the "speech of his life".

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His ruling party had been heavily trailing in the opinion polls, to the extent that many commentators were predicting that it faced melt-down in the next UK general election, due within the next eighteen months.

Brown's own poll rating was equally dire.

Here then was a government in deep crisis, almost in its death throes. Many journalists had come to dance on its grave.

But what a difference a week makes!

The global economic melt-down appears to have focused minds.

What looked like an open goal for David Cameron, the fresh-faced leader of the opposition Conservative party, is now heavily defended.

Polls that showed that Brown was staring into the political abyss now have voters regarding him as the politician most trusted to lead Britain through the financial crisis.

But then the prime minister had warned his own conference against "novices", and talked up his experience as a decade-long finance minister, and it seemed that this line was the one best remembered outside the conference hall.

Swift action

Last year, Brown's record took a battering as he first warmed to holding an early general election, only to pull back at the last minute.

More recently, his economic competence was questioned as the government prevaricated over Northern Rock, the first of the UK banks to be hit by the credit crunch.

Not this time though, last month Brown helped craft a swift rescue buy-out of HBOS, another major British bank, and on Sunday the nationalisation of another, the Bradford & Bingley.

Now he is moving to reassure British borrowers that their savings – well at least the first $100,000 – should be safe.

This is of course no US-style proposed bailout of the banking system.

Britain may be in trouble, but not as in as much trouble as the US.

The apprentice

Meanwhile, Cameron, who barely a week ago was looking like the heir apparent, now looks like the apprentice.

For he has little choice but to support the prime minister, since this economic crisis doesn't allow for the luxury of partisan politics.

Brown's 'novice' comment was widely interpreted to be aimed at Cameron [EPA]
Except that neither of the political parties has really begun to address the real elephant in the room; the near collapse of the Anglo-American free market model.

If Brown is currently seen by voters as more competent it is because he has the power to intervene in the interest of the public, and in dark economic times, state-owned banks are seen as being more secure by savers.

Britain's Labour party once stood for a mixed economy and against "trickle down economics" as does Barack Obama and the Democrats today.

It opposed financial de-regulation of the City of London, and warned that a market free-for-all could only damage the long-term prospects of the British economy.
However, in the past decade, the Labour government – or New Labour government as Tony Blair, the former prime minister, and Brown preferred it to be described – subscribed to free market solutions, and many voters in Britain found it difficult to distinguish between the two parties.

The financial crisis has changed all of that.

But what if the Conservative party under Cameron decides to pinch the Labour party's old clothes and reinvents itself during its conference in Birmingham this week as the interventionist party?

Next week the polls could be different again.

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