The Political Woes of Britain's Gordon Brown

As President Bush wraps up his farewell tour of Europe, I wonder: Does he ever take comfort in the misfortune of others? Schadenfreude surly beckons in London. Bush's approval rating is the lowest since polls began measuring this yardstick. Britain's prime minister, Gordon Brown, is in the same deep hole.

Whether history will judge Bush a tragic figure—a man unprepared for office who, confronted with awesome complexities, sought refuge in simplicities—is unclear. But Brown already seems to meet the classic definition: a man of great ability brought low by his failings. More broadly, Brown embodies the abiding tragedy of the Number Two. That should resonate here in the U.S., as John McCain and Barack Obama seek their vice-presidential candidates.

When Brown took over from Tony Blair a year ago June 27th, he was greeted with relief. Blair had become a figure of contempt in England-a phenomenon which puzzled outsiders. He was condemned for being too close to Bush; the alliance which propelled Britain into the Iraq war was as unpopular in England as it was in America. And Blair had come to be seen as a blow-hard, strutting the world's stage while, it was alleged, ignoring problems back home. To much of the rest of the world, though, he was a leader of welcome stature.

Brown's elevation to succeed Blair was greeted with optimism. For Labour Party stalwarts—always uncomfortable with Blair's briskly un-ideological "New Labour"—Brown was seen as the dour prophet who would reassert old verities. For the nation at large, Brown offered a fresh start for a government grown tired but still, on balance, viewed as better than its alternatives.

Brown's collapse in the intervening year has been astonishing. The Conservative Party—in opposition in the British Parliament since 1997—now rides high in the polls. Labour was massacred in local elections. Most notably in London itself, where the incumbent mayor Ken Livingstone—a tactless but undeniably competent exemplar of Old Labour—was tossed out in favor of an agreeable flaneur, Boris Johnson, whose wit and off-hand charm didn't conceal an absence of discernible qualifications to run a great city. Elsewhere in the country, Labour has been thrown out of Parliamentary seats it had held for decades.

Under the flexible mandate of the British system, Brown must submit himself to a national election sometime before May 2010. The Conservative Party looks set for a victory sweeping enough to give it a majority in the House of Commons for at least a decade.

And Brown doesn't seem to know what to do. "A dead man walking", one commentator cruelly called him. His colleagues in the Cabinet—British government being a more collective institution than the American presidency-are mulling, ever more openly, the need to depose him before the impending tsunami overwhelms them all. Brown himself stabs at ill-conceived pieces of legislation that are no sooner proposed than re-thought. A botched tax "reform" is widely thought to have cost Labour two seats in recent by-elections, as mid-term contests in individual political districts are called. Only this past week, Brown staked his dwindling power on pushing through Parliament tougher anti-terrorist legislation that even the police, the lawyers and the Security Service said was unnecessary. The baffled judgement is that Brown thought it necessary to show he was tough. Meanwhile, really thorny issues-such as the gaping hole in Britain's defense budget between future-year commitments and funding—remain unresolved.

What went wrong? The answer is that Brown is yet another example of the tragedy of the Number Two.

Back in the 90s, Brown and Blair were rivals for the Labour leadership. Over dinner at a north London restaurant, they struck a deal. Blair would take the top job, but Brown would be his successor. So, for the decade of Blair's premiership, Brown slogged away at the Treasury, given great latitude by Blair to run the country's finances. And, arguably, Brown did a good job: Britain's economy flourished more steadily than that of any of its European peers. But it's clear that Brown came increasingly to resent his role. Blair was the one garnering the headlines. Brown saw himself as the under-appreciated lieutenant keeping the show on the road. Two years ago, Brown's accumulated frustrations lured him to act. He allowed a campaign to start inside the Labour Party to depose Blair.

What Brown seems never to have grasped is that moving from Number Two to Number One is more than just a promotion. The top job demands a mix of skills that no subordinate post instills. Brown—this much is clear from the leaks by "those close to him", as press etiquette quaintly insists—not only shunned Blair's showmanship, his easy oratory, and his abiding concern with image. He seems actively to have despised all these aspects of Blair as mere frivolity. Good government needed no such artifice.

Now he is belatedly discovering that government in this media age requires just such skills. And Brown, at age 57, has no way to acquire them.

British history supplies precedents. The classic failure is Anthony Eden, for twenty years Winston Churchill's most glittering lieutenant. Eden finally took over in 1955, presiding within a year over the debacle of Britain's lunatic invasion of Egypt in the Suez Crisis. Margaret Thatcher's overthrow in 1990 brought the same failure. How many now could even name her successor? (John Major.)

Obama and McCain could usefully weigh Brown's failure as they mull their choices for Number Two—because American politics exhibit the same pattern. Fourteen vice-presidents have risen to the presidency—nine after the death of the president; one after his resignation; only five by winning election. Of these fourteen only four would be reckoned successes: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and, arguably, Richard Nixon, whose final disgrace still overshadows his accomplishments as president.

In modern media-saturated times, no vice-president has been a success as president. George H.W. Bush was turned out after only one term. Lyndon Johnson seemed by any measure better qualified for the Oval Office than John Kennedy—but, propelled there by assassination, LBJ could never summon the nerve to break free of JFK's toxic legacy of Vietnam.

So McCain and Obama should dismiss the conventional wisdom that they are picking a successor. Absent a disaster, they are not. What they need is a savvy lieutenant with experience enough to handle some of the myriad challenges, but without political ambitions of their own. Someone like, say, Dick Cheney. Oh, the irony.

Join the Discussion